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Tides Hold Promise of Electricity

by Lukas Velush, Herald Writer
The Daily Herald, February 11, 2006

Underwater currents could be harnessed to help light our homes,
under a dream the Snohomish County PUD hopes will become reality.

DECEPTION PASS - The unbridled might of the Pacific Ocean flows unchecked for 100 miles through the Strait of Juan de Fuca before it slams into the west side of Whidbey Island.

Much of that power funnels into Deception Pass, a narrow gap between Whidbey and Fidalgo islands. Four times each day white-tipped swells rush in and out of this canyon's sheer rock walls, each time roaring like the river early explorers thought this pass was.

For eons tidal currents have ripped through passages such as this all over Puget Sound. Now Deception Pass and a handful of other passes are the focus in a race to develop a new kind of renewable energy: tidal power.

As long as there are oceans, a moon and gravity, there will be tidal energy there for the taking.

In a modern-day gold rush, a handful of utilities and prospecting companies led by the Snohomish County Public Utility District are competing to scoop up some of the best tidal energy sites in the country.

PUD General Manager Steve Klein envisions Snohomish County leading the nation in developing and producing tidal energy. It would be a boon to the county's economy.

"We (could be) the Starbucks or Boeing of tidal power," Klein said.

Supporters say developing the technology can help utilities meet voter-mandated requirements to provide substantially more renewable energy over the next 15 years.

The PUD last June filed papers to explore planting fields of tidal turbines in Deception Pass, Admiralty Inlet, Guemes Channel, San Juan Channel, Spieden Channel, Agate Passage and Rich Passage.

The utility sees as many as 1,662 turbines on the bottom of Puget Sound, according to permits filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The turbines would be staggered in rows aligned to capture the strongest, most consistent currents. Sizes would vary. Most would be 100 feet tall with their slow-turning blades as big as 66 feet in diameter.

Together the turbines would generate about 100 megawatts of electricity on average, enough for 60,000 homes - about every house and apartment in Mukilteo, Everett and Marysville.

A real cost is unknown right now, but officials figure it would run into the hundreds of millions over the next 35 years. For comparison, a similar sized wind farm near Yakima cost $380 million, officials said.

The feasibility of successfully pulling large quantities of electricity from tidal currents is still being studied. Potential environmental impact also needs to be scrutinized.

Some of the very same environmental groups who for decades have called for new forms of renewable energy to emerge are already opposed.

They say the turbines would weigh too heavily on a sensitive ecosystem that is home to endangered salmon and orca.

A new 'gold rush'

The race to cash in on tidal energy started last April, when energy experts identified a treasure-trove of potential sites for tidal power in the United States and Canada, including Puget Sound and Washington's inland and coastal waters.

Claims for studying the best sites were filed all over the country in the weeks after the California-based Electric Power Research Institute issued its report. Eleven permits have been issued, another 38 - including all seven of the PUD's - are pending.

Oceana Energy Co., of Washington, D.C., filed a dozen permits with federal energy regulators at many of what are believed to be prime locations, including Deception Pass.

In June, the PUD rushed to stake its own claim at Deception Pass and the other six sites.

Having competition at Deception Pass prompted the PUD to speed up its applications, Klein said. "We were planning on doing it anyway."

Deception Pass is projected to produce 3 megawatts of electricity, and federal energy policy gives preference to those who make the first claim for a potential power-generating location.

That could put the PUD at a disadvantage at Deception Pass.

Admiralty Inlet, not Deception Pass, has the best tidal potential in Puget Sound - by far.

An initial assessment shows that the wide waterway connecting the Strait of Juan de Fuca to south Puget Sound could produce up to 75 megawatts of electricity, more than double the other Puget Sounds sites combined.

The city of Port Townsend has filed a competing claim for Admiralty Inlet.

Tacoma Power got its permit in 2005 and was given three years to study how viable tidal power would be in Tacoma Narrows. If it proves out, the utility would need other permits to install permanent turbines.

The PUD hopes to get its feasibility permits soon so it also can study whether tidal power is feasible here, both economically and environmentally.

"I wouldn't want anybody to think we're hell bent on making this happen," said Craig Collar, hired in November to lead the PUD's developing tidal energy program. "We're not."

Puget Sound's mother lode

The continent's best places to develop tidal energy are in Canada and Alaska, said Roger Bedard, who wrote last spring's report for the Electric Power Research Institute.

Tidal power relies on restricted passes and inlets that create currents that move faster and last longer than typical ocean waves, he said.

Alaska easily has 80 to 90 percent of the tidal power potential in the United States, Bedard said. In the lower 48, San Francisco Bay and Puget Sound have the most potential.

"We think the mother lode is Puget Sound," said Trey Taylor, co-founder and president of Verdant Power Inc., which is testing a turbine design in New York. "We may find the tidal waters of the Puget Sound could produce as much electricity as a couple of nuclear power plants. That's the marketer in me saying that."

He estimates Puget Sound and state waters north of the sound could easily generate 300 megawatts of electricity, three times what Bedard and others have suggested.

"I think Snohomish PUD is showing a lot of foresight" by locking up the best sites," said Sean O'Neill, president of Ocean Renewable Energy Coalition, a Potomac, Maryland, trade group. "I think the potential for tidal power in Puget Sound is tremendous."

If the PUD plays its cards right, Snohomish County could be where tidal power - currently in its infancy - becomes an industry.

The ultimate goal, Klein said, is to create a new research base in Snohomish County, bringing with it manufacturing jobs. He said there's a chance to woo federal research dollars here, even to locate a federal research lab here.

"This is a young technology," Klein said. "It needs to be tested, proven and embraced."

Just how green?

Tidal power faces many challenges, not the least of which is a growing environmental battle rooted in irony.

Fields of six-story tall turbines churning hundreds of feet beneath the surface of Puget Sound paints an ugly image for those already trying to fend off the impacts of pollution, shipping, recreational boating, and over-fishing.

"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.

"The problem is there are so many stresses on the oceans already," Berta said. "I'm not sure this is a good answer to our energy problems."

The PUD won't pursue tidal power if it harms endangered sea life, Klein said.

"In our back yard, what natural resource do we have? Tidal," he said. "It would be selfish and unfair if we didn't pursue the renewables in our back yard."

Last summer residents of Friday Harbor were surprised when a public notice ran in the local paper suggesting that Snohomish County PUD wanted to put as many as 168 turbines in Spieden Channel and another 116 in San Juan Channel.

"Automatically some red flags go up on how that is going to impact the marine environment," said Amy Trainer, attorney for Friends of the San Juans, an environmental group.

Like the San Juan group, the Tulalip Tribes are staying neutral for now, said Daryl Williams, environmental liaison.

The tribes worry that the turbines could cause salmon populations to dwindle even further, affecting their struggling fishing fleet.

The turbine fields also could harm whales, which are strongly connected to tribal spirituality, he said.

"If Snohomish County PUD's proposal for more than 1,000 turbines in Admiralty Inlet went through, I don't think we would see another orca or gray whale south of there again," Williams said. "It's purely guesswork, but 1,000 turbines could look like a big fence to the whales."

He said the impacts of tidal energy would need to be given extra scrutiny in areas where oxygen levels in the water already are low, such as Hood Canal.

State officials agree.

"Closed bays (such as Hood Canal) need to have sufficient (water) circulation to sustain marine life," said Larry Altose, a state Department of Ecology spokesman.

Scientists will study how much energy the turbines take out of tidal currents. If water circulation patterns are hurt, there will be no projects.

PUD officials recognize that they still have big studies to do for each site. But the idea needs to be explored.

"I want to make sure people don't have a knee-jerk reaction to this and say heck no before there has been an opportunity to test this," PUD Commissioner Dave Aldrich said. "It would be foolhardy to ignore the potential."

Tidal power also faces other challenges.

The state has no process for reviewing tidal energy, something that it is working to fix, Altose said.

And while federal tax incentives exist for wind and solar energy, there are none for tidal power.

Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., hopes to change that with federal legislation this year. His bill would also create a $100 million fund to support tidal and wave energy research.

Technology on the brink

To envision what tidal power would look like, take the fields of wind turbines that have sprouted up in the blustery Tri-Cities and Ellensburg areas and put them under water.

"This is basically wind underneath the water," Klein said.

Tidal and wind power technologies are so similar that tidal energy backers believe they've skipped the 20 years it took to develop viable wind turbines.

Few tidal turbines are now producing electricity.

The world's first, built by Marine Current Turbine Ltd., of Bristol, England, has been generating electricity at a Devon test site for about three years.

Another is in New York City's East River.

Yet more than two dozen companies are rushing to design a turbine that best harnesses underwater currents, Bedard said.

Most have propeller blades. But some look like underwater egg beaters, others like jet engines.

World energy and investment giants General Electric, Merrill Lynch and Voith Siemens are among those buying or investing in the most promising companies.

"The big players have been watching the technology develop," said O'Neill, the ocean energy consultant. "The big companies are finding out how these perform and they're putting money in."

One of the companies drawing rave reviews is Verdant Power Inc., which in December became the second company in the world to actually have a tidal turbine produce electricity.

The company's little test turbine in New York City keeps the lights on at a nearby grocery store and parking garage.

"It's our flight at Kitty Hawk," said Taylor, the company's president. "It's been producing so much power that we're just besides ourselves with glee."

Verdant is tracking the impact on fish and other marine life.

"We're watching it now," Taylor said. "(The fish) are just swimming around it."

The blades, 16 feet in diameter, turn at 32 revolutions per minute, easily slow enough for fish to get out of the way or even swim through, he said.

The company is building cheap, modular turbines that can fit a range of waterways, Taylor said.

If testing goes well, Verdant intends to add 299 more turbines, to generate electricity for about 10,000 New York homes. That would give Verdant the world's first ever tidal farm.

Klein hopes the PUD will be equally successful with tidal power, especially since it needs to provide electricity to the state's fastest-growing county.

"By us pursuing renewable energy now we can continue to be a clean state and not add to the global climate problems."

Lukas Velush, Herald Writer
Tides Hold Promise of Electricity
The Daily Herald, February 11, 2006

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