An alternative energy project off the Sonoma County coast that local officials just two years ago hailed as a way to increase renewable energy sources has come to a quiet end.

Federal regulators have canceled permits issued to the Sonoma County Water Agency to explore generation of electricity from wave power at three coastal sites.

Now just one, so-called hydro-kinetic project remains under exploration on the state’s coast, according to commission documents, in San Diego County. That leaves the East Coast and Midwest in the apparent forefront of such efforts.

PG&E has suspended projects it began in Humboldt Bay and near Santa Barbara, citing high costs and permit problems.

Water Agency officials said they couldn’t get the $2 million to $3 million needed to study the sites off Fort Ross and near Sea Ranch, leading the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to rescind the permits it issued in 2009.

“It wasn’t a surprise. We fully expected it,” Cordel Stillman, the agency’s deputy chief engineer, said of the Thursday decision. “We were not able to secure the funds to even begin that preliminary work.”

Observers who had monitored the project, excited by its potential and also cautious about possible damage to marine life, said they were disappointed.

The commission’s decision was “somewhat shortsighted,” said Richard Charter, a prominent Bodega Bay environmentalist. “Wave energy off the Northern California coast appears to be an idea whose time has not yet come.”

The county’s acknowledgment that it had not found any funding convinced regulators that the project was not going anywhere, a commission spokeswoman said.

“You must progress to our satisfaction when you have a preliminary permit; otherwise, we have the option of canceling,” said Celeste Miller.

Nascent technologies to harness the ocean’s power need more “time for gestation but FERC is unable or unwilling to provide that time,” said Charter, co-chairman of the National Outer Continental Shelf Coalition, which works on coastal ocean ecosystems issues.

The Water Agency earlier this year failed to win a federal Energy Department grant that would have allowed it to proceed, Stillman said.

The ability to investigate wave power’s promise under the aegis of a public agency was an advantage of the now-shelved project, environmentalists said.

“We would rather have a governmental agency, a county agency, involved rather than a corporation that might not be as responsive,” said Mike Frey of the Sonoma Coast Surfrider Foundation, which works on coastal and beach access issues.

Charter said, “Losing local control really brings the potential for some larger player who may not have the best interests of the Sonoma County coast at heart, to step in.”

County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, a Water Agency director, said that was unlikely because of the investment that would be required.

“One of the primary reasons for applying for these permits in the first place was to have some local control,” he said.

“But as time has passed, the risk has really become minimal because wave energy technology has not really gone to the next phase like we expected,” he said.

The Water Agency has 30 days to appeal the federal decision but is unlikely to do so, Carrillo said.

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Image courtesy of Federico Stevanin

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