Save San Onofre…Again

A proposed wave farm at San Onofre ignites new debate

Tyler Warren glides towards the shore at San Onofre, where some fear that swell energy will be diminished if the proposed wave farm is built. Photo: Glaser

In 2008, surfers joined to protect one of Southern California's most prized coastal recreation areas from being drastically altered by the proposed toll road project. Last Thursday, at the first public hearing for the proposed wave farm at San Onofre, a new battle commenced.

Wave farms are a relatively young technology for producing renewable energy. The concept is to capture the energy produced by ocean swells and convert it into electricity. If the project were approved, 2,000 generators per year would be attached to the sea floor a mile off the coast of San Onofre. Eventually, a total of 11,000 to 16,000 generators would be installed.

The proposal, lead by Chong Hun Kim of JD Products in Fountain Valley, may be getting off to a bad start with the local community. After Kim spoke at Thursday's hearing, Chad Nelsen, the environmental director at Surfrider commented that Kim "doesn't have a lot of experience both with the permitting process and the basics of what's happening out in the ocean at San Onofre."

One criticism of the proposal is that there may not be enough wave energy at the site for the project to be worthwhile. According to Nelsen, "the numbers in [Kim's proposals] appear inconsistent, but I believe the idea is to basically replace the SONGS nuclear power plant (San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station) that generated 2,200 megawatts of electricity, which is enough to serve the needs of 1.4 million households."

However, studies published by the BioOne organization and the International Journal of Energy Research support that there isn't enough wave energy south of Point Conception to sustain a project of this magnitude. Kim disagrees, but since he refuses to divulge his method for capturing the energy, it's difficult to determine whether the project in San Onofre is feasible. Unfortunately, secrecy doesn't bode well in the midst of what should be an inclusive public process.

Additionally, the project's effect on recreation in San Onofre could be drastic. A large chunk of ocean could be made entirely off-limits. With regard to its effect on the surf quality, the generators, which are a mile offshore and directly south of Trestles could shadow and diminish the energy of incoming south swells. Nelsen explains: "The wave farm by definition intends to draw energy from the swells coming on shore, so given the law of conservation of energy, any energy subtracted by the wave farm is less energy hitting the shore. The design has proposed over 10,000 metal floating boxes supported by frames that reach from the seafloor to the surface over a fairly large area--up to a square mile. I imagine this will act somewhat like a giant reef that will dampen and reduce wave energy."

In terms of the impact on marine life, there are some clearly predictable effects caused by wave farms. The generators that transmit the electricity to land give off electro magnetic frequencies that will deter some animals, like sharks and stingrays from the local area. There are also potential issues with large mammals--seals, whales or dolphins-- becoming entangled in the equipment that secures the generators to the sea floor.

Although one could focus on the negative aspects of the proposal at San Onofre, wave farms are an excellent source of domestic, renewable energy that produce zero carbon emissions. Surfrider was a firm supporter of the wave park built in Reedsport, Oregon, which the organization refers to as the "gold standard" for future projects-- due to its inclusion of the local community and close monitoring on how the marine life is affected.

The continued struggle to preserve the current landscape in San Onofre reflects its hallmark importance to surfers and ocean enthusiasts. The wave farm proposal brings opposing beliefs into tension on how a finite amount of land should be used for a growing population that desires affordable energy. Nelsen believes that a compromise can be reached, stating, "The public rallying behind the 'Save Trestles' campaign demonstrated that it's a really special place. There are a lot of areas of coast that aren't so heavily used and I think we should look at those places for developing these sorts of projects."