The big waves that crash ashore near Yakutat, Alaska, earned the tiny Gulf of Alaska town a spot on a National Geographic Traveler “bucket list” as a surfing destination – but nobody believes chilly hordes toting boards can cure Yakutat’s ailing economy. Waves, however, might still hold the key, by delivering it from sky-high electricity prices.
Yakutat, some 200 miles northwest of Juneau and accessible only by sea and air, relies on diesel generators to power its electrical system. The diesel arrives by barge from Anacortes, Washington, more than 1,100 miles away, an expensive journey that drives electricity prices to more than a half-dollar per kilowatt-hour—at least four times the national average. The high price of electricity, in turn, is doing a number on Yakutat’s 650 or so citizens.
“The price of electricity is killing people,” says Yakutat Power General Manager Scott Newlun. “At least $2 million is leaving the economy for diesel every year. It’s devastating.” A state program provides some relief for residential users, but it’s not uncommon for folks to spend half or more of their disposable income on their power bill, Newlun says. The high cost of power also hinders one of the area’s best commercial opportunities, fish processing.
Enter Boston-based Resolute Marine Energy, with a plan to bring relatively inexpensive, stably priced, and cleanly produced electricity to Yakutat with the wave energy converter the company has been developing since its founding in 2007.
“It’s just a barn door that flaps,” is how RME’s founder and CEO, Bill Staby, describes the 8-meter wide, 7-foot high device, which would go on the seabed just beyond the surf line, barely hidden under water. Unlike wave schemes that generate energy way out at sea and bring it ashore via expensive undersea cables, RME’s near-shore device, with its back-and-forth motion, simply pumps pressurized water through a pipe to an electrical generating station just a short distance inland.
With five or six 50-kilowatt RME devices planned for deployment initially, wave power could provide a solid chunk of Yakutat’s typical 750-kilowatt load, and if all goes well, the array could grow. Staby has ballparked the levelized cost of energy at 26-30 cents per kilowatt hour, which by definition doesn’t include a profit margin for RME and its potential investors in the project.
But will it work? This would, after all, be the first commercial wave energy project in the United States. RME has tested its technology with stints in the ocean off North Carolina, but year-round, Yakutat is sure to offer a significant challenge.
“We get tremendous weather,” Newlun says with a knowing chuckle. “It’s the open Gulf of Alaska. It’s about the harshest winter weather conditions you could imagine. You get 30-foot waves, huge winds – in other parts of the world they call them hurricanes; we call them a storm.”
The site is ice-free through the winter, however, and Staby, while acknowledging that Yakutat will pose a stern test, says RME’s device can handle giant waves.
“They’re actually less of a challenge for our system compared to other types of wave energy converters,” he says, noting that the device operates under water. “It’s like if you’re swimming in rough waters, everything is crashing around you, it’s chaotic. Then you go under a few meters and it’s relatively quiet and calm.”
When really big waves hit the flap, “they just pin it down,” Staby says. Some power production could be lost, he adds, “but you don’t break.”
Staby is actually more concerned by another factor peculiar to the Yakutat site: “There’s quite a bit of river activity, dumping sentiments, and we need to know how that stuff is moving around.” Seabed surveys this summer are expected to provide answers. “I don’t see it as something that can derail the project, but we’ll find out what mitigation we might have to do,” Staby says.
A year ago, RME outlined a plan for federal regulators to have a wave energy converter in the water and connected to shore by the end of 2014. Now, Staby is pointing to the third quarter of 2015 for deployment. Newlun says he expects to have wave energy in the next year or two. The prospect of being freed from diesel’s shackles has him and Yakutat’s residents highly motivated to make it happen.
“We’re trying to do anything we can to save our community,” Newlun says. “It’s a long process and there are many, many delays, but it’s well worth it and we’re going to keep pushing forward on it.”
RME believes that a successful project on a small scale can help the company prove its wares and move forward with more and bigger projects, particularly in what it sees as its primary business, powering desalination facilities in remote locales.
“It’s a great spot for us to give it a shot,” Staby says. “The cost of energy is high, so we can be competitive. The resource is tremendous. And the community is behind it. It’s going to be fun to see what happens.”