Can wave energy get Yakutat off diesel?

Waves crash onto Yakutat’s Cannon Beach. A New England company was recently awarded a preliminary permit for work toward a community wave-energy project here. Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska.


Surfers from around the world travel to Yakutat’s remote beaches to catch big waves.

Now, the community, hundreds of miles away from the nearest grid, wants to make another use of that power.

“If we’re able to convert that energy that’s pounding on our shores and displace diesel, the state’s going to save a lot of money,” says Chris Rose, founder and executive director of REAP, the Renewable Energy Alaska Project.

“We’re a place that makes sense to test this stuff, because we have higher energy costs than a lot of other places,” says Rose, who’s been watching the project’s progress.

Yakutat Borough Manager Skip Ryman says the bottom line is to get away from diesel.

He says the municipal power plant sells electricity for about 57 cents a kilowatt hour. The state’s Power Cost Equalization Program halves the residential price. But still …

“People are finding that anywhere from 45 to 60 percent of their disposable income has been going for utilities and home heating,” Ryman says. “This in turn is hurting retailers. We’ve been losing families, losing kids in the school system and essentially sending the community into a bit of a death spiral.”

Yakutat, about halfway between Juneau and Cordova, has been interested in wave energy for some time.

A study completed in 2009 recommended devices installed near the shore, rather than father out into the ocean.

“The device that we’re working on is called an oscillating wave surge converter,” says Cliff Goudey is senior engineer for Massachusetts-based Resolute Marine Energy.

A diagram of Resolute Marine Energy’s Surge wave energy converter and how it works. Image courtesy RME.

“That’s sort of a fancy word for a paddle that sits on the bottom, that’s hinged at the bottom, the hinge being parallel to the shoreline,” Goudey says. “So as the surge of the waves pass over the top, the paddle gets pushed toward the beach and then back and forth.”

The company is working with federal, state and local officials to research and fund the Yakutat project.

It will use Resolute’s Surge Wave Energy Converter, which powers hydraulic pumps, which drive a generator. (Read more about the Surge.)

The device has been tested off the North Carolina coast. But it doesn’t have a track record.

Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center Director Belinda Batten says its competitors don’t either.

“In terms of commercial arrays of wave-energy devices, they currently don’t exist anywhere in the world,” Batten says.

She says Scotland has taken the lead, testing a number of different devices and systems at a major research facility in Orkney.

“Until we really get the first arrays of small devices in and producing energy over some time where we learn operating and maintenance costs, reliability, sustainability and those kind of those kinds of things, it’ll be tough to call the winners,” she says.

Resolute Marine Energy was recently granted a preliminary permit allowing more research and planning. But it still must clear other regulatory hurdles.

The company and its partners also need to address environmental impacts and conflicts with other users of the area.

There’s the surfers, of course. (Watch a video of Yakutat surfers in action.)

Borough Manager Ryman says that’s not all.

Yakutat’s Cannon Beach.

“It is an area used by trollers. You have whale migration off shore. There’s some concern about the noise these may be making and how that might interfere with whale migrations,” he says.

An Oregon wave-energy proposal has drawn opposition from crabbers and recreational boaters.

Yakutat’s project is being designed to meet the community’s power needs for much of the year.

Ryman says diesel generators would fill the gap when needed, especially when the local fish processor operates.

Rose, of the Renewable Energy Alaska Project, says hybrid systems are common.

“We now have 26 wind-diesel projects out there that are using sophisticated control technology to marry the wind and the diesel. Wave power’s actually a lot more predictable than wind power,” he says.

Experts say wave patterns can be forecast a day or two in advance.

Goudey, of Resolute Marine Energy, says the project could have statewide implications.

“If we can make this work in Yakutat, there will be other opportunities to do similar things in other locations around coastal Alaska,” Goudey says.

Research and construction could take years, possibly a decade.

In the short term, Yakutat is considering a biomass energy plant to fill the gap. But Ryman says that’s expensive too.

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