Making waves

E&T talks to US politicians about the superpower's plans for marine energy.

Engineering & Technology: It has been said that the US does not support renewable energy, in particular marine renewable industry. How would you respond to that?

Senator Lisa Murkowski (Republican - Alaska): I have been in the United States Senate now for six years. In that time the ocean renewable energy industry has progressed from really being in the minor leagues of energy development in this country, to really having arrived with the bigwigs.

In 2005 we passed EPACT, the Energy Policy Act and last year in the Energy Indepen-dence and Security Act, the federal government was given a host of new research and development tasks to aid the industry. It is also required that the government help create and fund the national marine renewable energy research and development demonstration centres.

We have also been working to generate more good news in the tax title of last year's energy bill; we were working to have ocean energy qualify for the federal production tax credits (PTC). Unfortunately, congress did not act to extend any of the renewable energy tax credits because of a dispute over how we were going to pay for them. It always comes down to the same thing: how are we going to pay for them?

E&T: Why are renewable energies finally gaining acceptance among US public and politicians?

Congressman Jay Inslee (Democrat - Washington): The US and the developing nations have to stabilise enough to reduce carbon emissions. Now you think about the challenges socially with that; the bottom line is that we have largely to decarbonise our electrical grid. Obviously, global warming is not the only reason to do this; you play a role in energy dependence as well.

My belief is that this is something that might happen naturally over the next 50 to 100 years if the US congress does nothing. We don't have 50 to 100 years - we have only got years not decades to get this revolution rekindled. As a result of that, the US Congress has to be involved front and centre as a major ally of industry to move this forward.

E&T: Despite this, the US still looks to fossil fuels in oil and coal for its main sources of energy?

JI: We have to level the playing field between non-carbonised sources of energy and carbonised sources. Frankly, there is a total lack of equity right now, because the fossilised fuel-based systems have all of the tax breaks. They are entitled to put infinite amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at zero cost. As long as they have that subsidy, clean energy industries will be at a grievous disadvantage.

We would never allow a utility industry to put their slag from their coal plants into a dump truck, drive out to Central Park and dump it, but that is exactly what we allow them to do; to put their pollutants in the air in infinite amounts with no regulation and no cost.

It is our job to change that and the single most important thing we can do for the industry is to adopt a cap and trade system - to cap the amount of CO2 that goes into the atmosphere for all industrial segments, stationary and mobile and to charge polluting industries a charge for putting that CO2 in the air. I believe that the US will have such a provision in law by the fall of 2009 at the latest.

E&T: Do you believe that feed-in tariffs would help US renewables, particularly marine renewables?

JI: We have seen the success in Europe with the feed-in tariffs that Germany and a couple of other countries have used to create a guaranteed price for clean electricity, and we have seen that it kind of follows the eye of the cornfield rule - 'if you build it they will come'.

If you build a price structure for generators of clean electricity, they will come. They have come big time in Germany and other places with solar and other technologies. So I hope that, in a couple of weeks, you will see an American equivalent of a feed in tariff bill for clean non-polluting electrical generators, to create a stable price.

Each technology will have a separate price that is consistent with the stage of the development of their technology. That price will come down every year or two as it has in Europe. That is always a matter of tension when that happens.

We are going to use a different language - we are going to call it a production incentive rather than a feed-in tariff because when you talk to constituents about a feed-in tariff they think it is a charge for food for bears in the zoo or something. It is going to take a while for this idea to germinate; all good ideas take a while in congress.

E&T: Is the US investing enough money in research and development on renewable technologies at the current time?

JI: The US needs to invest serious federal money into R&D; we have basically very little right now in our federal R&D. 

To put it in perspective we are spending 55 times more on the war in Iraq than we are on our entire R&D budget in the US for clean energy.

Now that is really pathetic - that a country that sent a man to the Moon is now spending six to eight times less than we spent on the Apollo project to save the planet Earth. That is an enormous misprioritisation of federal resources. The $3bn or so that we are spending on R&D really is just crumbs off the table considering the nature of both this challenge and opportunity.

LM: The department of energy is moving forward with plans, within the confines of the slightly under whelming $3m anticipated to spend this year and next, to partner with industry demonstrating marine technologies.

The Department of Energy (DOE) is planning to fund efforts to improve upon EPRI's (Electric Power Research Institute) estimates for where and how much ocean energy is available. The department is going to spend money on the technical evaluation of devices, perhaps relieving some of the industry cost of rating those devices.

The department is also prepared to do a worldwide inventory so that the industry and government know what the most promising technological avenues to pursue in the future are. All of these are good, positive steps and while more is needed they clearly are a significant advance for this industry from where it was five years ago, or really just a year ago.

E&T: How hopeful are you about this plan?

LM: I am hopeful that congress will be able to jump start DOE's effort to build an ocean energy programme from scratch by providing more than federal funds than the $3m that is currently proposed. We have to do better than that - $3m is not going to get you anywhere. We all appreciate that this is a terribly tight budget year. I am not saying that ocean energy will gain the $15m that I know some are seeking. We don't want to go backwards on this and unless we can have the policies and funding in place, it is tough to make those advancements.

Now having said all this, it is time that the industry itself really turned its full attention towards making the promise of ocean energy a true reality.

I don't need to repeat the statistics. We all know that we have got enough coastline and deep rivers in this country so that ocean energy conservatively can produce 90GW of power even where ocean projects could generate about 6 per cent of the nations total power needs. The same as what we see from conventional hydropower today.

E&T: What about the regulatory environment? Is that right in the US for renewable power industries to thrive?

JI: This has been frustrating because we simply have to develop the technology and the regulatory climate on parallel tracks at the same time. That is not easy to do, but frankly we have to find a way to do that.

In clean coal we have to find a way to figure out who is going to own the CO2 underground, who is going to have legal responsibility for it, and who is going to monitor it and have that monitoring obligation.

In the marine context we obviously need our friends from the agencies to really adopt regulations to help give the industry a firm feel about how we are going to go through the permitting of these great technologies.

I met 12 people in venture capital community the other day and they told me two things - get certainty in the tax climate and get certainty in the regulatory climate and we will do the rest. That is why I believe it is our responsibility and I am looking forward to achieving that.

E&T: Can I take it from your comments that the US government is finally facing up to the challenge of climate change?

LM: As we debate in congress and discuss around the country the issue of carbon emissions from fossil fuels, and how it effects our environment, we know that we need to do all that we can to promote clean renewable energy technologies.

We can have our debates about global warming causes and how much man has contributed and we can argue and debate as to whether we have or have not reached peak oil flows, but I think it is pretty clear that we have reached the peak of relatively easy to find, relatively inexpensive hydrocarbon production. While oil and natural gas will, hopefully, drop in price before too long, we are never going back to the days when gasoline was 30¢ a gallon or where our natural gas supplies were cheap and plentiful.

We need to develop a full array of alternative energy technologies, since our economic wellbeing as a nation will be dependent on finding cleaner cheaper and better ways of generating energy.

E&T: So you are confident that the politicians in Washington are mirroring the sentiments of the people on this issue?

JI: I have never seen an issue or an idea advance as quickly as the cause for clean energy. I have never seen the public move as fast as they have on this issue.

I can tell you that things are really spinning very quickly, minds are changing very quickly in congress. This is a great moment to be alive in Washington DC, to be able to help with the birth of this industry.

E&T: What about the inequality in subsidies between marine and the more established renewables of wind and solar?

JI: It is an interesting dynamic because the younger an industry is, the smaller it is, the more it needs the subsidy and the less political throw away it has in the US congress. So it is always a conundrum.

E&T: It is clear that you, and indeed the country, are recognising the need, but how close do you think you are to tapping into this potential?

LM: What I really hope to see is true progress, genuine progress in improving and providing the real-world reliability and workability of the range of hydrokinetic devices that are now under development to meet the electric power needs of Americans. We know that the industry is clearly still developing. 

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