Habitat and Communities: Wave, Tidal, and Offshore Wind Energy

Since 2005, interest in renewable energy (including wave, tidal, and offshore wind energy) has surged on the West Coast, driven by efforts to develop energy alternatives in order to reduce fossil fuel consumption, oil imports, and carbon emissions. Wave energy is believed to have great potential in terms of energy production. The World Energy Council has estimated that the technical potential of ocean wave energy is more than 2 Terrawatts (1 TW = 1 million megawatts), or about two-thirds the current world wide energy demand. However, production potential has been limited by the technological challenge of generating energy in a harsh ocean environment, by a lack of knowledge about wave energy’s environmental impacts, and by the slow pace of efforts to determine which areas are most suitable for ocean energy projects. At the same time, hydrokinetic technology is constantly developing, with potential new technologies being announced seemingly every few months. For example, attention has recently turned toward placing floating wind turbines off the West Coast.

Although hydrokinetic projects are in place around the world, there are no actual projects in place yet on the West Coast. Many early efforts to place projects in West Coast waters were subsequently abandoned due to lack of funding or for other reasons. Wave energy development is being promoted by universities (most notably Oregon State University and the University of Washington); by the Federal government (the Energy Policy Act of 2005 promotes renewable energy and recognizes ocean energy as a field with significant potential); and by state and municipal governments.

Why the Council is Interested in Wave Energy

The Council is tracking wave energy projects off the West Coast because of their potential impacts on fish, fisheries, and fish habitat. Some important questions for any wave energy project include (for example):

  • How will the project site be chosen?
  • How will the project respond to local community and fishing industry concerns?
  • How will data on environmental, fisheries, and social impacts be gathered?
  • How will the projects be monitored?
  • How will management of the project respond to changing conditions?
  • How will projects be installed, maintained, and removed?
  • What are the cumulative impacts of multiple hydrokinetic projects along the coast?
  • What are the electromagnetic, acoustic, and visual impacts of wave energy projects, and how will they affect the marine environment?
  • How will the projects influence marine species abundance and behavior?
  • Will collisions and entrapment of marine mammals occur?
  • How might habitat be altered by the anchors and cables associated with the project?
  • Will toxins and chemicals be released by the project or by vessels servicing the project?

Since this technology is new to the Pacific coast, a great deal of information still needs to be gathered on its environmental, biological, and fisheries impacts.

Wave Energy in the U.S. and Around the World

Europe leads the world in wave energy development. Projects are planned, or are in place, in Denmark, Wales, Portugal, Spain, Scotland, and Ireland. Elsewhere, projects are installed (or are being installed) in Australia, Nova Scotia, South Africa, and China; and research on wave energy is being conducted in the South Pacific, India, Indonesia, Japan, and in other countries.

The first federally licensed in-stream hydrokinetic power project in the U.S. began operating commercially on August 20, 2009 on the Mississippi River in Hastings, Minnesota. The Hastings project, an in-stream turbine from Hydro Green Energy, captures the flow from the output channel of an existing hydropower dam. In addition, a 10 megawatt (MW) “distributed generation” tidal project was installed in New York’s East River, and a similar project has been installed in Massachusetts’ Merrimack River. Offshore, two experimental projects have been put in place. In Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, the U.S. Navy installed a PowerBuoy off the coast of Oahu in 2004-2005. In New Jersey, a PowerBuoy was installed for testing off Atlantic City in 2005.

Many other projects have been proposed and are working they way through the FERC permitting process.

Federal Permitting and Licensing

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is responsible for approving hydrokinetic projects (that are connected to the power grid) in state waters. The Minerals Management Service (MMS) is responsible for projects on the outer continental shelf (in Federal waters).

Projects in state waters

FERC has two different processes for obtaining hydrokinetic licenses. For both, a preliminary permit serves as a placeholder, preventing other companies from proposing projects in exactly the same location. A preliminary permit does not allow any actual technology to be put in place; instead, it allows the applicant to conduct studies in support of developing a project. From there, the two licensing methods diverge.

The pilot project licensing process is designed to expedite the development of hydrokinetic projects. The goal of the pilot process is to allow developers to test new hydrokinetic technologies, to determine appropriate siting of these technologies, and to confirm their environmental effects, while maintaining FERC oversight and agency input. The process completes licensing in as few as six months to allow for project installation, operation, and environmental testing as soon as possible. Projects eligible to use this process are of limited size, are removable or able to shut down on short notice, and are not located in waters with sensitive designations.

Pilot projects are limited to 5 MW or less, and licenses are granted for five years. Under this process, the applicant files a notice of intent to pursue the pilot licensing process; consults with agencies and tribes; and files a license application. FERC issues a biological assessment; agencies and others comment on the application; and FERC issues an environmental assessment. This process is designed to take as little as six or seven months. So far, no projects have been granted a pilot project license, though several have notified FERC that they wish to pursue this route. This process has been criticized for not allowing enough time for the required studies, and for public and agency involvement (see Council letter to FERC).

The FERC licensing process is based on the licensing process for a traditional hydroelectric project, such as a dam. The process involves a high level of public comment and agency involvement, and can take several years. Licenses are for 30- to 50-year terms. Applicants must submit a preliminary application document (PAD), conduct scoping under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and issue an environmental assessment or final environmental impact statement (EIS) before a license is granted. A license allows the actual installation of a project (providing other related permits are obtained). Only the Makah Bay project, a one-kilowatt pilot project, has been granted a license, but the project is now defunct.

Projects on the Outer Continental Shelf (Federal waters)

The process for projects in Federal waters is considerably more complicated than for projects in state waters. In August 2009, FERC and MMS clarified the rules for applying for a license on the outer continental shelf (OCS). (For agency purposes, the OCS equals Federal waters). MMS has jurisdiction to issue leases on the OCS for hydrokinetic projects, and FERC has jurisdiction to issue licenses for these same projects. Leases are generally for 25 years, but may be extended.

In most circumstances, projects must apply for a lease from MMS and a license from FERC in order to operate a project in Federal waters. However, some small, short-term experimental projects can operate in Federal waters without a license from FERC. Such projects cannot be connected to the electrical grid.

MMS offers both commercial leases and limited leases. Commercial leases are required for projects that required FERC licensing. Limited leases are available for smaller, short-term experimental projects.

In order to apply for a lease, applicants can either wait for MMS to publish a “request for interest” (similar to a request for proposals) for a particular area of the OCS, or submit a request for a lease in a particular area. If MMS determines that there is no competition for the same site, the applicant must submit a site assessment plan (SAP) within 60 days that describes the proposed activities and supplies environmental information. If there is competition for the same site, applicants must bid for a lease. Once a lease is secured, applicants must begin the FERC licensing process. The timing for beginning the FERC process depends on whether or not there is competitive interest in the lease.

If there is competitive interest in an area, it should take 2 to 2.5 years to complete the MMS leasing process, including consultations and environmental reviews. If there is no competitive interest, MMS anticipates it will take 1 to 2 years to issue a lease, depending on the complexity of the activities proposed. FERC anticipates being able to issue a traditional license 1-2 years after a complete hydrokinetic license application is filed. Pilot project licenses may be issued more quickly.

The Council wrote a letter to MMS regarding their proposed leasing process (See Council letter to MMS). FERC has posted an FAQ that explains the process for OCS projects in more detail.

Hydrokinetic Technologies


A single PowerBuoy (Ocean Power Technologies). Similar technology has been proposed for projects off Coos Bay, and Reedsport, OR; San Luis Obispo, and Mendocino, CA.


An example array of PowerBuoys (Ocean Power Technologies)


AquaBuOY (Finavera); similar technology was proposed for the Makah Bay project.


Underwater turbine (or tidal instream energy conversion (TISEC) device). (Lunar Energy)


Another type of TISEC (Verdant Power)


Examples of WaveGen’s oscillating water column technology (this version used in Scotland); similar technology proposed for jetty in Douglas County, Oregon


The Pelamis wave energy converter, which has been described as “giant orange sausages floating off the coast.” The Pelamis lies perpendicular to the waves, and as each wave passes along its length, segments move up and down in a snake-like motion. Generators convert that motion to electricity. Has been considered for projects off the West Coast.


The WaveDragon, an “overtopping” technology used in Wales (not currently proposed for any West Coast sites)


The WindFloat floating turbine, currently proposed for Principle Power’s project near Tillamook. Each WindFloat turbine is capable of producing 5 mW, as compared to 2.5 mW for terrestrial wind turbines.

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