Portland, Oregon [RenewableEnergyAccess.com] Companies, state and federal regulators, coastal industry groups and the public questioned the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) proposal for a 5-year pilot license for new technologies such as wave and tidal energy at an all-day meeting in Oregon last week.
In July FERC issued a proposal to speed up the permitting process for pilot projects producing 5 megawatts [MW] or less that are not in sensitive environmental areas—and could be pulled out of the water if environmental concerns rose.
Under the plan, a 5-year license would be issued after a six-month review. Currently under the Federal Powers Act, the permitting process involves an intensive three-year pre-filing process and a two-year review. But those licenses are issued for 30 years or more.
At the Portland meeting on October 2, FERC officials stressed that for the pilot program to succeed, state and other federal agencies would have to be on board or the timetable wouldn’t work.
“We need other agencies to develop their own processes for this to work,” said John Katz, an energy attorney in FERC’s office of general counsel.
During a morning panel, wave company officials wondered whether the 5 MW limit on the project is sufficient and suggested the license might be granted for a period longer than five years.
“A five-year term is not long enough to get a return on your investment,” said Daniel Irwin, president and CEO of Free Flow Power Corporation, a company that designs and manufactures turbines mainly used to harness river energy. “Why not grant a longer-term license and make the investor or company take the risk. If anything meets this threshold it’ll get pulled.”
Irwin also wondered “what thresholds will there be for it to be required to be pulled out?”
Kevin Bannister, vice president of business development for Finavera Renewables, agreed that the unknowns are a block to more investment in ocean energies. “The investment community looks at regulatory uncertainties as probably the primary barrier to getting involved in this.”
Finavera lowered the first test buoy for wave energy off the Oregon Coast in late August and has a project in the planning process in Makah Bay in Washington. Bannister also wondered whether the same amount of work would be required of a developer for the pilot 5-year license as for a full 30-year commercial one. If that were the case “we’d obviously go for the commercial license.”
Steve Kopf, a consultant with Ocean Power Technologies Inc. (OPT) asked if there would be a reward for positive results. “If there are problems, we take it out. But if not, do we get to build it out?”
OPT wants to put 14 buoys off the Oregon coast near Reedsport by 2009, which could expand to a wave park of 200 buoys in the area.
Finavera’s Bannister agreed. “What’s the reward once we’ve proven that our technologies are doing what they do? From our perspective it should be an expedited permitting process.”
Following the meeting FERC’s Katz said he felt the proposal got a mixed reception, with Oregon state regulators more eager to move than Washington ones. “The Oregon folks say: Yeah we’re there. We absolutely want to do this. The Washington folks say there are a lot of problems here. We just don’t know.”
Annie Szvetecz, the southwest regional assistance lead in the Washington Governor’s Office of Regulatory Assistance, mainly agreed with Katz’s assessment. In a phone conversation following the conference, Szvetecz said Washington is facing different challenges from Oregon.
Oregon is “being very pro-active about wanting the ocean technology,” Szvetcz said. The feedback she’s getting from her agencies is that “the time frame for the permits doesn’t necessarily overlap with the six-month proposal.
Tim Stearns, senior energy policy specialist with the Washington Department of Community Trade and Economic Development said one key is that Oregon wants to put its projects in the Pacific Ocean while Washington is looking toward locating them in the Puget Sound “which has a lot of problems as is.”
From FERC’s perspective, Katz said, it’s important that state agencies come on board. “It’s a large part of the battle if a relevant state agency or state government wants to help out because they have authority to make recommendations. They have the Coastal Zone Management Act. Input into all the other stuff. So if the state says, `We’re comfortable with all this stuff. We can do it,’—That really gives a big push, because they are a major player. Yes it’s a federal license, but the states are major players….It’s one of those things—if there’s a will there’s a way. And if there’s not, it won’t happen.”
Miriam Widman has more than 20 years experience as a journalist and has covered the wave and solar industries for Off the Record Research, an investment research group. She also contributes to NPR and to the Willamette Week, a weekly newspaper in Portland, Oregon.