PUD Continues Long Wait for
by Christopher Schwarzen
Permits to study tidal-power locations throughout Puget Sound and other national coastline areas will take longer than initially expected as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) considers how best to handle the new technology.
FERC says it's not delaying permit approvals, but taking a methodical look at the increased interest in using tidal power for electricity production. The agency has approved 11 permits for pilot projects -- including two on the West Coast -- out of about 50 applications filed the past two years.
Among the pending applications are seven filed last June by the Snohomish County Public Utility District, which has potential plans for tidal-power projects at sites throughout Puget Sound and to the north, including Admiralty Inlet, Deception Pass and the San Juan Channel.
Each of the PUD's projects would be different, but the basis for producing electricity using tidal action involves a series of turbines that draw water using underwater rotating propeller blades measuring about 66 feet in diameter.
Together, the projects could produce as much as 100 megawatts of power -- just less than the PUD's hydropower project on the Sultan River and enough to power 60,000 homes.
Potentially, the largest project could be near Port Townsend at Admiralty Inlet, with turbines generating about 75 megawatts. The city of Port Townsend has filed a competing application with FERC for use of Admiralty Inlet.
When the PUD filed applications last summer, it had hoped to be working by now on feasibility and environmental studies at sites. But little work can be done until FERC approves its applications.
"This is a new technology, and a lot of developers are looking to test pilot projects before they go to commercial operations," said FERC spokesman
Bryan Lee. "The commission has acted very flexibly with early applications, but now it needs to take stock of the upsurge in recent interest." Lee said each application is being considered as it is filed. All are moving forward at the same pace.
"There are a lot of questions the commission has to answer yet," he said, adding that tidal-power issues were the main topic of FERC's annual hydroelectric conference in December.
Among the questions to be addressed are environmental issues, mainly how tidal-power projects will affect marine mammal and fish migrations. Washington tribes say they fear tidal-power projects throughout the Sound will send orcas away and disrupt salmon runs.
"We're not opposed to someone like the PUD doing the studies, because that's the only way we're going to find out," said Daryl Williams, the Tulalip Tribes' environmental liaison. "But from what we've seen in other countries where tidal power already exists, those types of studies haven't been done."
Tacoma Power will be one of the first to test the waters. Only it and Golden Gate Energy in San Francisco have permits to conduct studies on the West Coast.
Tacoma Power is considering a tidal-power project at the Tacoma Narrows. The utility is seeking grants for funding help as preliminary studies, including how much energy might be produced, are getting underway, said spokeswoman Sue Veseth.
"If that study looks good, then we'll look at environmental issues, permitting issues and other aspects of the project," she said. "We're taking it one step at a time."
The PUD, which hopes its test permits are in hand by the summer, believes it will take about 18 months to complete preliminary studies, meaning any electricity produced from tidal power is years away.
Still, PUD officials say the clock is running, especially in light of last year's passage of Initiative 937, which requires a mix of conservation measures and renewable-energy sources to make up a utility's energy base.
Under Initiative 937, utilities serving more than 25,000 customers -- the PUD has more than 300,000 -- would need to get at least 15 percent of their energy from renewable resources by 2020, and that doesn't include hydropower.
"First, we need to nail down the tidal currents at each site," said Craig Collar, senior manager of energy-resource development at the PUD. "If the tidal resource is not there, then nothing else matters."
While it's waiting, the PUD is getting feedback from stakeholders on their concerns. Many of them are raising the same questions FERC is now trying to address.
"The questions are very good and valid, and we want to get to the right answer also," Collar said. "It's possible that environmentally this is not good to do, but given I-937 and climate change, these kinds of renewable-energy sources need to be investigated, evaluated and implemented." All in good time, says FERC.
"There's just no definite timeline on how long this all will take," Lee said.
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