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

Between around 2005 and 2012, interest in marine renewable energy (including wave, tidal, and offshore wind energy) surged on the West Coast, driven by efforts to develop energy alternatives in order to reduce fossil fuel consumption, oil imports, and carbon emissions. After a brief rush of applicants applying to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for preliminary permits, the growth of the marine renewable industry has, at least temporarily, slowed off the West Coast.  The slowdown was due to a general economic decline caused by “the great recession;” by the technological challenges involved in generating energy in a harsh ocean environment; by lack of knowledge about marine renewable energy’s environmental impacts; and by the slow pace of efforts to determine which areas are most suitable for ocean energy projects. Most early applications for permits or licenses were abandoned, even after millions of dollars had been invested in research and development.

Currently, there are just a few offshore energy projects being considered off the West Coast, but the marine renewable energy industry has not gone away. In fact, the technology is constantly developing, with potential new technologies being announced seemingly every few months. Many of these technologies are being used in Europe, but in the U.S. marine renewable 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.

Because of its geography, the ocean off the Pacific Northwest is considered one of the best areas in the world for hydrokinetic energy. However, energy in the Pacific Northwest is relatively inexpensive due to our traditional hydropower resources, which reduces incentives for placing renewable marine energy offshore. Some developers see the Pacific Northwest as an excellent place to test technology that will eventually be used in areas with higher electricity costs, such as Alaska.

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.

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 Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is responsible for projects on the outer continental shelf (in Federal waters). In addition, many local agencies – on the state, county, and municipal level – may also have permitting requirements.

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 the Minerals Management Service (which later became BOEM and other agencies) clarified the rules for applying for a license on the outer continental shelf (OCS). (For agency purposes, the OCS equals Federal waters). BOEM 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 BOEM 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.

BOEM 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 BOEM 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 BOEM determines that there is no competition for the same site, the applicant must submit a site assessment plan 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 BOEM leasing process, including consultations and environmental reviews. If there is no competitive interest, BOEM 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 has written many letters to FERC, the Minerals Management Service, and BOEM, commenting on specific projects and on ocean energy projects in general.

FERC has posted an FAQ that explains the process for OCS projects in more detail.

Currently Proposed Projects

Principle Power Offshore Wind Project

This floating wind turbine project, located 18 miles off Coos Bay, Oregon, has received a permit from BOEM. The 30-megawatt project could have five large turbines spinning by the summer of 2017. A Wall Street Journal article notes that “going offshore means there is virtually no size limit to the blades that could be used because each could be assembled close to shore, then towed out to sea—without having to pass through tunnels or under bridges on land.” In May 2014, Principle Power was one of three projects to receive $46.7 million from the Department of Energy to be used over four years for construction and deployment. The Demonstration project is not a commercial project; it would not be authorized to expand beyond the proposed five wind turbines. However, it would sell the power it generates. As of July 2014, BOEM is collecting public comment on the environmental assessment for the project.


The Pacific Marine Energy Center – South Energy Test Site is being proposed by the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center at Oregon State University. The site will be located about four nautical miles from Newport, in Federal waters, and will allow developers to test their technology in a “plug and play” setting that is already connected to the grid. Water depths in the area range from 180-230 feet. The project is designed to support up to 20 megawatts of electricity generation which would be transmitted to the mainland grid via a subsea cable.

M3Wave Project at Camp Rilea

M3 Wave LLC plans to put a pressure-driven device on the ocean floor near the Oregon National Guard’s Camp Rilea, near Warrenton, Oregon. A small-scale model of the device was successfully tested in the summer of 2014. The 30-by-7-foot device would be placed on the ocean floor, about 42 feet below the surface and about a mile offshore. The device harnesses the pressure of a wave on the ocean floor and does not require a buoy. The energy converter is stationary and enclosed airbags inflate and deflate to create electricity. Testing could include deploying fishing gear to see how it interacts with the device. The overall project is at the very beginning of conceptual design; an ongoing study looked at possible cable routes that would go underneath the floor and connect the converter device with equipment at the camp.

The Oregon National Guard has been pursuing the project as a way to further its energy net-zero initiative, a plan for becoming energy independent. In addition, M3 plans to test the technology for future use in Alaskan waters.

The waters off Camp Rilea are prime crabbing grounds, and fishermen have been concerned about wave energy devices interfering with equipment.

Admiralty Inlet Pilot Tidal Project (now defunct)

This project would have been located in Admiralty Inlet, in the northwest part of Puget Sound between the Olympic Peninsula and Whidbey Island. The project was abandoned because the expense was considered too high. The project would have used two six-meter underwater turbines and would have been connected to the grid, but its primary purpose was to gather data to better inform the viability of commercial tidal energy generation.

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