Will oceans' tides supply endless electricity?

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 7, 2011 

SEQUIM, Wash. — Joshua Myers has been busy putting electrodes on the heads of juvenile salmon, trying to determine how the fish will react to the simulated sound of giant steel and fiberglass turbines, which soon could be submerged in Washington state's Puget Sound.

Myers, a research engineer, is conducting his acoustical experiments in a laboratory on Sequim Bay, where scientists want to learn how to create electricity from an unusual source: the force of powerful ocean tides and waves.

If all goes as planned, two large hydro turbines will be installed 200 feet deep in the harsh waters of Admiralty Inlet by late summer 2013, marking the first project of its kind in the state. But before then, scientists want to figure out how rockfish, diving birds, whales and other marine life will respond to the intruding turbines, which will weigh 350 tons each.

In the latest quest for clean power, Washington state has emerged as a hotbed of high-tech research into what's known as hydrokinetics.

The project is driven in part by Washington state residents' demand for a change from traditional carbon-based fuels for generating electricity. They passed an initiative in 2006 that requires large utility companies to increase the amount of electricity they generate from renewable energy sources, such as wind or solar, to 15 percent of their supply.

"We're very enthusiastic about this. ... We're trying to use ocean space in a way we've never used it before," said Andrea Copping, a senior program manager who's in charge of the project at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's marine science lab in Sequim.

Utilities are gearing up for the change.

Later this month, the Snohomish County Public Utility District will formally apply for a license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for the $25 million pilot project.

"This is all very new," said Craig Collar, the senior manager of energy resource development at the Snohomish County utility, the second largest publicly owned utility in the state. "Nobody has a commercial tidal energy plant running of the type we're talking about today, and probably we're years away from that."

The idea of getting tides and waves to produce electricity isn't a new one.

A few years back, Tacoma Power, which serves the area around Tacoma, Wash., considered placing tidal generators in the Tacoma Narrows in southern Puget South, but the proposal eventually was put on hold. Similar projects are in various stages of development in a handful of states, including New York, Maine and Alaska.

If the project succeeds, scientists say, the potential for tidal power is huge. Twenty-eight coastal states consume 78 percent of the nation's electricity, and 52 percent of the U.S. population resides in coastal counties.

In the tests Myers is conducting, the salmon are placed in a large tank and forced to listen to the simulated sound of turbines for 24 hours, after which researchers examine them for contusions or other signs of biological trauma.

The researchers said it was too soon to know how salmon or other marine life would fare in the experiment.

"We don't know what the impacts might be biologically or physically," Copping said. "We're learning, but we don't know a lot. ... If we get good data out of it, that's a real win."

Copping said researchers didn't expect tidal power to be "the magic bullet for all renewable energy" but that it eventually should join wind, solar and geothermal as part of the nation's energy portfolio.

In many ways, scientists said, the hydro turbines are similar to jet engines. A jet engine works by having air pass through it; the hydro turbine works by having water go through it, making the blades spin. Copping said inventors who were trying to capitalize on the new business already had come up with 60 or 70 designs, some that "are weird and wacky and different-looking."

So far, there's been one persistent problem: Blades routinely break when they're exposed to the strong currents.

"There hasn't been any turbine that's gone in yet, that I'm aware of, that hasn't had a pretty significant failure," Collar said. "It's just like wind in the early days. It's going to be expensive. It's not going to be very reliable. And it's going to be hard to permit."

Collar said the utility company expected to spend $10 million to $12 million on the project, with the remainder coming in grant money from the U.S. Department of Energy.

While the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is the main federal agency in charge of licensing, Collar said, as many as 35 local, state and federal agencies claim to have some jurisdiction over the project.

Environmentalists are following the experiment closely. Among other things, they fear that the turbines will hurt endangered killer whales.

Chrissy McLean, the orcas program coordinator for the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, said the whales already faced too many pressures and that they shouldn't be exposed to anything else that could harm them.

"We really don't know how they're going to react, because these particular whales have never seen these turbines," she said.

Copping said there were many other questions: Will the public accept the new industry? Will financing work? Can the hydro turbines comply with environmental regulations? And most basically, can the technology even work?

"This isn't like putting something on land," she said. "This is a very wild part of the ocean. ... I don't think any of us believe that the first thing that goes in the water is going to be it."

Congress is backing the research, thanks in part to the state's senior senator, Democrat Patty Murray, a veteran member of the Senate Appropriations Committee's Energy and Water Development Subcommittee. She inserted a $1.75 million earmark in a 2010 energy appropriations bill for the experiment at Sequim. Murray said the research would "help ensure that Washington state will remain a national leader in renewable energy research and development."

To get ready for the installation of the hydro turbines, researchers from the University of Washington have been using remotely operated vehicles to scope out the rocky ocean bottom at Admiralty Inlet, situated between Port Townsend and Whidbey Island.

James Thomson, an oceanographer at the University of Washington's applied physics lab, said researchers had had to use robots because humans were allowed to dive only 120 feet. They've discovered currents so strong that they can hear rocks rolling around at the bottom of the ocean. The currents are so forceful that it's even impossible for sediments to settle.

For Thomson, driving the vehicles remotely has been particularly difficult.

"I wasn't allowed to play video games as a kid," he said. "And now it has professional ramifications."

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