Monday, December 8, 2008

Grays Harbor Ocean Energy Company

The Grays Harbor Ocean Energy Company (GHOEC) has filed applications for preliminary Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) permits for hydrokinetic power at seven sites in six US states.

These filings are starting to get more visibility and comment and several people have asked us for more information on what we are doing, what our plans are, and why we are taking this approach. We have also upset a few people, primarily over two things: for not having engaged in more advance consultation, and for (some fear) having some kind of nefarious agenda.

In this post I will strive to provide some explanatory background along with more information about our plans and intentions. Your comments and constructive criticisms are welcome; please comment on this post or send email to


My business partner Burt Hamner and I founded GHOEC a year ago initially to pursue utility-scale ocean energy near Grays Harbor County in Washington State. Burt earlier had directed a feasibility study (12MB PDF) for Tacoma Power in Puget Sound's Tacoma Narrows to assess the viability and feasibility of tidal power. The study's conclusion is that tidal power in Tacoma Narrows would not be feasible for a decade or longer, and Tacoma Power sensibly declined to proceed further.

Although the study's result was disappointing--we had hoped to proceed with a demonstration project there--the need for renewable energy persists, so we looked at where to go next, and, as a result formed two companies, Hydrovolts and GHOEC. Hydrovolts seeks to take the concept of utility scale tidal turbines and build them much smaller--at kilowatt scale--for distributed and point-of-use generation. GHOEC sought to find solutions other than tidal power for large-scale renewable energy generation in Washington State.

During the assessment for Tacoma Power it became clear that the outer coast of Washington State has very strong wave and wind resources, and few were exploring them. Natural Currents LLC received a preliminary permit for tidal energy in Willapa Bay in March 2007 (P-12729) and Finavera Rewnewables continues to pursue wave energy in Makah Bay, having received the nation's first (and so far only) commercial operating license from FERC. (FERC permits and comments can be found here.) GHOEC filed an application for a preliminary FERC permit on 10/28/07 to assess the ocean energy potential near Grays Harbor; given the potential of the resource, we were surprised that no one else had previously done this.

Interestingly, AquaEnergy (later bought by Finavera) earlier looked at offshore energy in Grays Harbor, but discontinued their efforts because the ocean was too deep for their particular wave device. This may be the origin of the idea that the Washington coast is too deep for ocean energy devices in general; as we talked to various renewable energy people and companies we kept hearing that the ocean of Washington State was "too deep." However, the ocean current on the Pacific Coast moves south-to-north, and the Columbia River discharges at least a million tons of sediment into that current every year. So, while the outer continental shelf (OCS) is very narrow off California and much of Oregon, it gets quite large from near the mouth of the Columbia and to the north. 10 miles from shore the ocean is only about 150 feet deep, meaning that there is a very large area suitable for many kinds of marine renewable energy devices, and offshore wind turbines of the largest size could be placed far enough out to perhaps entirely mitigate concerns about views and noise.

The FERC Role

The FERC issued our preliminary permit P-13058 on 7/30/08. (Press Release.) This preliminary permit gives us the right to assess the potential for wave power at the two sites detailed in the application and described in detail on our web site. It does not permit the placement of anything in the water; that can only occur under a FERC pilot or operating license, and only after acquiring many other permits from the various local, state and federal authorities. What the FERC permit and FERC process do, however, is provide a detailed framework for proceeding. It removes ambiguity on what is required and ensures formal involvement of all stakeholders, including environmentalists, fishers and crabbers, local officials, tribes, property owners, and others. The FERC system also grants the first applicant for a hydropower site priority development rights. Says the FERC:
Section 4(f) of the Federal Power Act authorizes the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to issue preliminary permits for the purpose of enabling prospective applicants for a hydropower license [covers wave power but not wind power] to secure the data and perform the acts required by FPA section 9.3 which in turn sets forth the material that must accompany an application for license. The purpose of a preliminary permit is to preserve the right of the permit holder to have the first priority in applying for a license for the project that is being studied. Because a permit is issued only to allow the permit holder to investigate the feasibility of a project while the permittee conducts investigations and secures necessary data to determine the feasibility of the proposed project and to prepare a license application, it grants no land-disturbing or other property rights.
We are very interested in offshore wind, and the wind off Washington State is amongst the best in the world for generating wind energy. Wind is not much mentioned in any of our FERC permit applications for a very simple reason: FERC has no jurisdiction over offshore wind on the OCS or anywhere else. In our application for the Grays Harbor demonstration project we had originally included information on our plans to test wind energy using a single turbine; the FERC sent the application back and requested we remove all references to this. The FERC didn't even want to hear about it. In our newest applications there is also only passing mention of wind energy, and this is based on our experience in filing applications with FERC according to their rules and requirements.

The Minerals Management Service Role

Historically, Minerals Management Service (MMS) of the Department of the Interior has overseen the leasing of federal lands (and waters) for resource extraction. It grants leases through a competitive auction for everything from oil and gas drilling to metals and mineral mining. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (PDF) also gave the MMS jurisdiction over renewable energy projects on the OCS. The MMS and the FERC have been negotiating how to cooperate on offshore renewable energy projects ever since. They had publicly announced their intention to sign a MOU, but there is still no completed agreement. MMS completed the comment period on their proposed rules in September and has indicated that they will release final rules before the end of the year (now only weeks away.)

I posted earlier about FERC asserting jurisdiction over hydrokinetic projects on the OCS and the state of affairs between the two agencies. There are excellent summaries of the inter-agency squabble here and here. Final resolution by mutual agreement may yet happen, but intervention by Congress or adjudication by courts is looking more and more likely.

The GHOEC Approach

We believe our energy future requires offshore renewable generation from wind and wave. The best places to do these kinds of energy projects is farther out, beyond the limit of state waters--10-15 miles from shore.

The GHOEC technology solution for ocean renewable energy includes a mobile jackup platform that supports wave energy and wind turbines. The MMS does not yet have a process or rules to pursue energy projects on the OCS. When FERC asserted jurisdiction on hydropower projects on the OCS they provided a way to proceed. The Company therefore applied for FERC preliminary permits to assess wave energy from the sites identified. If the FERC issues preliminary permits the Company will proceed with site studies. The results of the studies, local consultations, partnering discussions and other factors will guide GHOEC in its decision of whether or not to proceed with the next phase of FERC permitting. We expect that resolution will be achieved on the issues between the FERC and the MMS and expect to pursue whatever applicable rules and procedures established by MMS, just as we will comply with those of all other authorities at every governmental level.

We are not hiding our interest in pursuing offshore wind or engaged in some kind of devious Trojan horse activity. Formal applications and responses to FERC are done according to their rules; we strive to present the full and accurate picture of what we are doing and planning on our web site. We also encourage interested or concerned parties to submit comments to FERC or directly to us. Commenting on the FERC applications is easy--when you have the docket number of the application go to FERC Online and follow the directions.

Finally, all of this is still at a very preliminary stage and many things could change as we go forward. We have not selected any particular wave or wind technology and recognize that considerable work lies ahead in figuring which, if any, would be suitable. Those alluded to in the applications or on our web site are provisional; any proposed solution will require careful and competent study in many areas, including suitability for any particular site.
We do like the three-legged jackup platform, adapted by Offshore Wind Power Systems of Texas from use in the Gulf of Mexico oil and gas industry. There are many advantages to this platform, including:
  • There are no cables/wires underwater which threaten whales
  • It has a smaller ocean floor footprint than cable systems
  • It can be placed/removed in as little as a single day
  • There is no driving of piles and thus none of the noise that pile-driving causes
  • The structures are simple enough that they can be manufactured locally using facilities that exist in any marine industry in any reasonably-sized port.
  • The core design withstands force 5 hurricanes and 60-foot swells

There are, of course, also many questions, which is why more studies need to happen before this or anything else is put in the water. Our approach is to proceed deliberately, following the rules, and doing the work of careful assessment and study using qualified experts and the insight and knowledge of local groups. If at any point it becomes clear that any project under consideration cannot be made viable, feasible, and environmentally compatible we will stop. Bookmark the page, print it out, memorialize this how you want. It is a commitment on our part.


The first that many local authorities and stakeholders learned of our plans was by a notice from a federal agency or a piece in the news. That is not what we wanted, and we are sincerely sorry for the shock and for any offense.

Just as with our removal of most mentions of wind turbines in our applications to the FERC, so to with our consultations: we acted based on our experience with the application for the project in Grays Harbor. Burt wrote an open letter explaining how we were surprised by the pace of the process:

I wish to extend my apologies for surprising state and local officials and organizations in the states where we have proposed projects. The FERC acted on our applications faster than I think it has ever acted for any applicant before, and, frankly, it caught it us off guard. We have not had time to contact the political, energy and ocean leaders in our project areas.

We applied for the preliminary FERC permit for the Grays Harbor project on October 28, 2007. The FERC opened the application for public comment five months later, and issued the permit on July 30, 2007, nine months after we applied. The seven recent permit applications were applied for on October 21, 2008 and the FERC opened them for public comment on November 28, 2008, a mere five weeks later. We simply did not expect (and did not have advance notice) that seven applications would all be opened for comment so quickly. Naively, we assumed that we could begin that process in January rather than during the holiday season, and be fully engaged prior to the FERC's action. We were clearly wrong to assume this and regret the negative impression of our intentions it has created. Burt wrote:
We have been preparing to contact the officials in the states affected by our applications in January and February, after the holidays and the Presidential transition and the new Federal agency heads are in place. I personally called FERC and asked them to open the public comment period in January or February, because opening it in December is rather unfair to the public - the holiday season is a big distraction and I don't think the public and agencies really get a "normal" 60-day comment period if it opens on November 28. A proposal for offshore energy development of course greatly concerns state and local officials and the affected public and interest groups. We have great experience in stakeholder consultation and the permitting processes and we like the FERC system, unlike almost every other developer, because it requires and directs an extensive consultation process with every stakeholder. We will follow that process and contact state and local leadership in our site areas beginning in January 2008. We have already contacted a few key people in each state. We look forward to receiving "official" comments on our applications to FERC during the 60-day period, and of course we want any feedback at any time to help us understand local concerns and learn how we can advance this tremendous opportunity in open partnership and collaboration.
Again, we welcome your comments, either directly to us or to FERC (use the docket number of the application and go to FERC Online.)

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