Chon Hung Kim wants to be a wave farmer, but the State of California has other ideas. “They don’t want to help guys like me.”
Kim, a mechanical engineer who logged a 20-year stint at Boeing, thinks the time is ripe for an infinitely renewable energy source. To that end, he’s proposed a massive project to farm the waves off San Onofre. The wave action, he says, is ideal there, as is the convenience of adjacent transmission lines used at the reactor. However, Kim’s big idea has run aground, courtesy of the California State Lands Commission.
Wave farming — harnessing the power of the sea to generate usable energy — isn’t a new idea, but technical issues have always stood in the way of turning the briny deep into a depository of usable electricity. Kim, a Ph.D. who lives in Orange County, thinks he’s solved one of the most vexing of these issues: saltwater corrosion. To address that, he’s registered a patent for a wave power system that uses closed units that keep the crucial, submerged parts dry.
In recent decades, myriad ocean wave electricity generation farms have been proposed, but few have actually been built. Often shelved due to lack of funding, they remain grand concepts that never come to fruition. And of the operational farms, not a single installation in the United States has ever approached large-scale commercial viability. The failure of wave farming to catch on — even during the supposed ascendancy of alternative energy — is partly due to design complications inherent to machinery submerged in roiling, salty water. But the dearth of such facilities may also be closely tied to governmental ambivalence — if not downright hostility — which manifests itself in a Gordian knot of rules, regulations, and procedures.
On March 2, 2010, fresh from the triumph that is the birth of a patent, Kim filed an application for a preliminary permit with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. (In commission-speak, the permit’s “sole purpose...is to grant the holder priority to file a license application during the permit term.”) The application states that in contrast to extant wave power facilities, whose electricity production tops out at around 2 to 4 megawatts, the San Onofre facility would at full capacity churn out (an estimated) 3186 megawatts, or enough energy to power a city of at least 1.5 million residents. To generate this amount of juice, the project — situated in an area of 1.93 square nautical miles, including portions of San Onofre State Beach — would utilize 11,443 floating units to collect the wave energy. (Each collector would be about 30 feet long, 16 feet wide, and 14 feet high, the latter dimension including around 8 feet of structure visible above the water.)
By June 18, the Feds — having accepted Kim’s application — issued the standard 60-day notice for those wishing to file comments, motions to intervene, or competing applications. Just prior to the expiration of the response window, the Surfrider Foundation, a group whose stated mission revolves around beach protection and access, filed a motion to intervene.
Chad Nelsen, Surfrider’s environmental director, says, “The motion sounds more serious than it is. It’s just something we do whenever a wave farm is proposed; we’ve filed motions around 15 times during the last three or four years for West Coast projects. The motion to intervene simply says that we want to be a participant in public comment, but it doesn’t imply that we’re necessarily for or against a given wave farm.” Nelsen says that Surfrider, headquartered just up the road in San Clemente, has a “broad set of concerns” potentially applicable to all wave energy installations — which might, or might not, be relevant to the San Onofre project. Among them, he says, are public safety (injuries from untethered equipment); adverse effects to sea life (e.g., “entangled whales”); alterations of sediment transfer to the beach; and interference with recreational activities like surfing.
However, states Nelsen, “Surfrider is in favor of clean energy — ways to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Where the environmental costs have been too high, we’ve opposed wave farm projects. But we’ve supported others, sometimes with modifications.”
As Dr. Kim has discovered, working the sea is considerably more red tape–ridden and expensive than working the soil. For one, wave farms float on the public domain, which is to say, the State of California’s fiefdom. As ostensible guardians of the Golden State’s resources, the folks in Sacramento appear less receptive than Surfrider. For all the governmental chatter about “green” energy, the State of California seems none too enthusiastic about the prospect of a big wave farm at San Onofre.
Kim says that although he’d been vaguely aware of state regulations — including the strictures of the California Environmental Quality Act — he had decided to address them after he’d applied for his federal permit. But he admits that he’d underestimated just how onerous the requirements are. “The California State Lands Commission told me that before they’d approve it they would need to conduct studies and that I would have to pay for them. When I asked them how much it would cost, they said that I’d need to pay them $30,000 up front, but they couldn’t tell me what the maximum might be. It could be as much as a million dollars.”
According to Kim, the lands commission claims that because the agency “lacks experience” with wave farms, it can’t evaluate the potential environmental impacts of the project without demanding extensive (and possibly expensive) studies. The State of California did, however, float one idea: the ever-helpful folks at the commission suggested that the inventor contact Pacific Gas and Electric in San Francisco for assistance. Kim thinks it’s a nonstarter, scoffing, “They’re a private company and a competitor. Why would they talk to me?”
Environmental impacts and red tape aside, it’s unclear whether an installation of this size could be constructed given current technology, much less produce the staggering amount of electricity that Kim forecasts. According to Dick Seymour, head of the Ocean Engineering Research Group at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Kim’s project isn’t even remotely feasible.
“It can’t be done.” To begin with, says Seymour, who says that he’s reviewed a hundred or more wave farm proposals over the years, “the wave climate [along the Southern California coast] is modest compared to Northern California and Oregon, where the available wave power peaks out at 1 to 5 megawatts.” Moreover, he states that, given the intrinsic fluctuation of wave activity, wave farms, wherever situated, must use many (relatively) smaller units rather than a single, massive structure. The result, he says, is a “moving forest” of devices, “difficult or even impossible to repair or replace with current technologies.” And then there’s the problem of storms, which would likely create hazards by breaking up and/or dislodging equipment. Seymour quips, “There’s big liability.” For what it’s worth, he also says that folks who currently work in offshore energy production — traditional, blue-collar, “rig” roughnecks — are dismissive of wave farming. “Whenever I talk to the oil and gas guys, they just roll their eyes.”
For better or worse, Farmer Chon isn’t likely to harvest the waters off San Onofre anytime soon. Even if he were able to surmount the technical challenges of building a mega-scale wave farm, he’d still be faced with the prospect of open-ended costs emanating from California-mandated studies. Thwarted in his efforts to lure investors, Kim laments that venture capitalists won’t commit to a project if there’s a real risk that start-up costs will be excessive. When I last spoke with him, he was — even as masked by a layer of Korean circumspection — dejected and stunned. In broken English, he wrote in an email, “We are considering to abandon the project in the United States. Too much problems. We do not intend to hire lawyer to fight back.” (Officials from the California State Lands Commission could not be reached for comment.)