Utilities Hope to Investigate
by Associated Press
EVERETT, Wash. -- Several utilities and prospecting companies are trying to stake their claims to prime sites for what may be a new source of renewable energy - tidal power. Picture an Eastern Washington field of giant wind turbines - under water.
The Snohomish County Public Utility District is among those trying to secure permits from federal energy regulators to investigate harnessing tidal energy in key sites around Puget Sound. The utility wants to explore planting fields of tidal turbines in such spots as Deception Pass and Admiralty Inlet.
The utility envisions as many as 1,662 turbines on the bottom of Puget Sound, according to permit applications filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The turbines would be staggered in rows to catch the strongest, most consistent currents. Most would be 100 feet tall with blades as large as 66 feet in diameter.
That many turbines could possibly generate about 100 megawatts of electricity - enough for 60,000 homes, proponents say.
Snohomish County might be a leader in developing such energy, said Steve Klein, the PUD's general manager. "We (could be) the Starbucks or Boeing of tidal power," he said.
But right now, the PUD is just seeking to study the economic and environmental feasibility of tidal power, and the permits to do that are still pending with FERC.
"I wouldn't want anybody to think we're hell bent on making this happen," said Craig Collar, who was hired in November to lead the utility's tidal energy program. "We're not."
Since last April, when energy experts identified potential sites for tidal power in the United States and Canada, energy companies have filed for permits to study key sites, including several in Puget Sound.
Tidal power relies on restricted passes and inlets that create currents that move faster and last longer than typical ocean waves, says Roger Bedard, who wrote last spring's report on the topic for the California-based Electric Power Research Institute.
"We may find the tidal waters of the Puget Sound could produce as much electricity as a couple of nuclear power plants," said Trey Taylor, co-founder and president of Verdant Power, Inc., which is testing a turbine design in New York.
A number of environmental groups, especially those concerned with sea life, have concerns.
"I support alternative energy, but there are some real problems with tidal energy, both in terms of sound, as well as the physical disturbance in the water," said Susan Berta of the Orca Network, which tracks killer whales.
While the Tulalip Tribes are staying neutral for now, Daryl Williams, tribal environmental liaison, worries that turbine fields could also harm salmon and whales.
"It's purely guesswork, but 1,000 turbines could look like a big fence to the whales," he said, adding tidal energy impacts would need to be studied also in areas like Hood Canal, where oxygen levels in the water are already low.
Larry Altose, a state Ecology Department spokesman, agreed that closed bays such as Hood Canal need to have sufficient water circulation to sustain marine life.
Among the things to be studied will be how much energy the turbines would take out of tidal currents.
So far, few tidal turbines are producing power. One has been generating electricity at a Devon, England, test site for about three years. Another is in New York City's East River.
Still, Bedard said more than two dozen companies are working to design a turbine that can harness underwater currents.
Last June, the Snohomish County PUD filed papers for permits to explore planting fields of tidal turbines at these locations: Deception Pass, Admiralty Inlet, Guemes Channel, San Juan Channel, Spieden Channel, Agate Passage and Rich Passage.
A permit application for Deception Pass, a narrow gap between Whidbey and Fidalgo islands, was also among a dozen filed with federal energy regulators by Washington, D.C.-based Oceana Energy Co. The city of Port Townsend also filed a claim for Admiralty Inlet.
And Tacoma Power already has a three-year permit, issued in 2005, to study whether tidal power could be tapped in the Tacoma Narrows.
The Snohomish County PUD won't pursue the project if it harms endangered sea life, Klein said.
But it would be foolish to ignore the potential, PUD Commissioner Dave Aldrich said.
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