Testing the waters

Waves and tides may one day provide electricity to homes - but a backlash is building

  • The Wave Dragon in Nissum-Bedding, Denmark


Standing on a bridge high above the rushing emerald waters at Deception Pass, a narrow strait in Washington's Puget Sound, Craig Collar voices a sense of wonder.

"Just think about the power there," he says. With flows of up to eight knots (or a bit more than nine miles per hour) the site has "definitely the highest currents in the Sound."

Could this powerful tide someday light up homes? Collar, the senior manager of energy-resource development for the Snohomish Public Utility District, will spend the next several years finding out. Following passage of a statewide ballot initiative last year, Washington's big utilities were required to beef up their renewable energy sources - not including traditional hydropower. Collar believes that underwater turbines turned by tides at Deception Pass and elsewhere in the Sound can one day provide electricity for up to 60,000 homes. And the Snohomish utility is hardly alone in testing the waters: Up and down the coast, utilities and private developers worried about climate change and oil dependency are putting money into this newest source of power - the Pacific Ocean.

Ocean power in the West is only in the preliminary stages - there are currently no devices in the water on the West Coast - but already environmentalists, fishermen and even divers are gearing up for a battle. Some observers hark back to the West's one-time embrace of dams. "We heard very similar comments about hydro-power decades ago - it's cheap, clean, all those nice catchphrases. We're living with the results, good and bad," says Clint Muns, director of resource management for the Puget Sound Anglers State Board.

Local environmentalists are concerned about possible impacts to fish as well as to scenery. Deception Pass is not only one of the most-visited state parks in Washington, but also an "outstanding natural area that has every salmon from the Snohomish and Skagit (running) through it," says Steve Erickson of the Whidbey Island Environmental Action Network. "This is not a place to experiment."

Erickson's group would like to see extensive study and slow implementation of the new technology, noting the mass raptor deaths caused by the large-scale introduction of wind turbines at Altamont Pass in California in the 1980s. In the San Juan Islands, ocean machines have been jokingly referred to as "orca blenders," says Amy Trainer, staff attorney with Friends of the San Juans. Her group is concerned about the potential development of two sites in Puget Sound, citing impacts on the fish, the views and navigation. "It's a tricky position for everybody," she says, "because we obviously want alternative energy, but it has to be done responsibly."

The potential of ocean energy is vast, but the technology is mostly unproven. Water is roughly 800 times denser than air, meaning it can pack tremendous energy. With the ocean's energy, the U.S. could potentially generate enough power to meet 10 percent of current national electricity demand, according to Roger Bedard of the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit that is leading the research in the field.

Applications for preliminary study permits have soared. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, the lead agency overseeing the nascent industry, received 43 filings for preliminary marine-energy permits last year, versus 16 in the previous two years combined. More than half are for sites in the Pacific.

Ocean power isn't cheap. The first projects near San Francisco's Golden Gate could produce power for 5 to 16 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is as much as three times pricier than wind and four times more costly than coal, according to the Electric Power Research Institute. But prices should come down as the technology improves. The federal government - which currently does not fund ocean-power research - may also start chipping in. Rep. Jay Inslee, a Democrat from Washington, is pushing a bill that would provide $50 million annually for 10 years for ocean-power research, plus tax credits.

Ocean energy breaks down into two main categories - tidal and wave. The West has both in abundance. Tidal power, the type being considered for Deception Pass and seven other sites around the Sound, harnesses the ocean's twice-daily ebbs and flows using underwater turbines, which are similar to wind turbines. The best sites have plenty of fast-moving water and not too much eddying (the latter could derail Deception Pass).

Large tidal stations have been operating in France and Canada for decades. Those stations resemble dams with sluice gates, whereas Deception Pass and other small modern sites would hide the turbines underwater.

The only tidal station now operating in the United States is a small experiment in New York's East River, where six grid-connected underwater turbines have been in place since April. The country's most promising tidal sites include San Francisco Bay (under the Golden Gate), Alaska's Cook Inlet, the Western Passage in Maine and Admiralty Inlet in Puget Sound.

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