Their fortunes have continually deteriorated since the 1900s heyday. During the late 1900s and the early 2000s, lifestyles for a few hundred Makah changed drastically. Unemployment sometimes reaches record levels above 70 percent. Cost of operating fishing boats skyrocketed. Electric power is down (sometimes as long as three or four days a week) because of heavy snow and ice storms. A third of the town's population lives below the poverty level where the average annual income is less than $25,000 per year. Many young Makah Indians have left the area to seek their fortune in other parts of the country.
All that changed in early 2001 when Allah Weinstein of a company called AquaEnergy Group came to the Tribal council with a plan to harness ocean wave energy three miles offshore. This short, energetic woman said that initial plans could generate enough electricity to power 150 Makah homes, and if successful, additional installations of offshore equipment could generate as much as 80 megawatts.
Tribal council leaders were skeptical and concerned about the impact on the environment (both onshore and offshore). Interference with surface navigation was a major concern. And if they were to generate enough electricity from this new technology to power their local needs, would they also be able to sell the surplus to one of the local power companies?
Some of these questions have been answered. In April 2007, Finavera (AquaEnergy's successor company) received preliminary approval from FERC for an offshore wave energy plant. As of this writing, initial results look promising, but they are not without undiagnosed pitfalls.
What is this thing called ocean wave energy? It is simply defined as the ability to harness the power and energy of ocean waves to generate electrical power, cleanly and cost-effectively. Although ocean wave energy is not as well known and advanced as solar, wind, etc., it is making significant progress throughout the U.S. The Electric Power Research Institute estimates that wave power could eventually meet 10 percent of U. S. demand.
Ocean wave energy is becoming one of the favorites for the renewable energy crowd. Ocean wave energy has some distinct advantages over other types or forms of energy. Multiple reasons for this positive effect, although most of these have yet to be proven:
Other U. S. coastal states are climbing on the bandwagon. At least eight Alaskan ocean energy projects have received FERC preliminary permits, says David Lockhard with the Alaskan Energy Authority. According to the October 7, 2008, version of the West Coast Hydrokinetic Energy Projects database from the Pacific Fishery Management Council, California heads the list with nine active projects, nine in Washington, followed by five in Oregon.
The Minerals Management Service, FERC and coastal states are struggling (and juggling) to provide some sort of oversight -- even though they are defining new procedures and processes as they go. In 2008 FERC issued 47 preliminary permits for ocean, wave and tidal energy projects, according to spokesperson Celeste Miller. Most such permits grant rights just to study an area's energy-producing potential, not to build anything. Most planned ocean wave energy installations are outside the State three-mile limits. However, any transmission and distribution facilities must transverse these territorial waters and therefore the States, too, must be involved with plans and permitting.
Funding for ocean wave energy from state, federal, public and private investors is picking up speed. The State of Oregon most evidently is leading the way a several projects underway. Other states such as Washington, Alaska, California and Hawaii are beginning to fund new projects. The Department of Energy has announced a five-year, $6.25 million grant to establish an ocean energy research center in Newport, Ore. In mid 2007 the House Committee on Science and Technology approved a Marine Renewable Energy Research and Development Act to provide $50 million a year to promote energy research.
PG&E has announced it plans a WaveConnect project to build two 40-megawatt wave farms off the coast of California. Chevron, in early 2008 applied for (and later withdrew) an application for a wave energy plant off the coast of California.
In addition to federal and state funding, private investors are also beginning to see the opportunity for profitable ventures and are contributing to the overall early success of various ocean wave energy technology. For example, in early 2008, Wave Energy Ltd. raised $82 million through an offering led by First Energy Capital Corp.
To be sure the road to success for ocean wave energy is fraught with potential barriers. First-generation technology is still being developed and tested. Although various methods from tubes, turbines and "snakes" seem to be emerging as the favorites, it is too soon to tell which of these technologies will emerge as the winner, and which will be the progenitor for second-generation technology.
Regulatory approval is still unwinding at a snail's pace. Many capital venturists, entrepreneurs and investors are complaining about the long, arduous permitting process --- as long as three years. Other investors have run into roadblocks on occasion when the states have given approval and only to find out later that federal approval has not been obtained. Lack of coordination and a clear-cut process is certainly not abetting a prompt solution.
Environmental issues still present a formidable obstacle for ocean wave energy. Although a number of studies are underway, it is just too early for any definitive results from environmental tests. Over the next few decades, new findings will either prove or disprove the feasibility of this type of energy.
Still yet, the effects on navigation of seagoing vessels cannot be determined in the short term. This area will see substantial review and scrutiny as we prepare for the birthing of new alternative energy.
In the decades to come we will see unparalleled changes in the world of renewable energy. More states will require power-generating companies to provide a larger portion of its electric package from renewable energy. More investors (private and public) will increase R&D funding for renewable energy projects around the world. Second generation technology will start to appear as the results of initial test systems become known and proven technology becomes the parent for new, improved versions. More of the world's population will seek cleaner energy sources, even if it costs more.
In the early part of 2009, a number of new events will brighten the luster of ocean wave energy. First-generation technology will become more evident and lead the way for the next generation. Permitting will smooth out as state, federal and investors will reach some sort of equilibrium and balance the cost and benefits satisfactory. A number of the experimental projects around the world will reach a phase that investors can feel confident they are riding the crest of new age energy.