When Doug Johnson asked attendees at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce lunch on Wednesday how many wondered if the Cook Inlet tides could be used to create energy, most people raised their hands.
Ocean Renewable Power Company is conducting environmental work this summer in the East Foreland area near Nikiski that could lead to just that, he said.
"The Forelands is an amazing resource," Johnson said. Johnson is the Maine-headquartered company's Alaska business development director.
This summer, Ocean Renewable is doing a number of studies that will help determine how feasible a pilot tidal power project is. Johnson said the company has experience with projects in Maine and is confident in the energy source, but is trying to tweak their technology for Alaska.
The first step includes the permitting process, which requires environmental testing and technology adaptations.
"We're doing a lot of work developing methodologies," he said.
On the environmental side, the company is most concerned about beluga whales and salmon, he said.
The company is working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to gauge the presence of beluga whales in the East Forelands area, where the company hopes to eventually deploy a turbine generator unit. The beluga work involves having observers look for them visually, as well as some sound monitoring to hear them in the water.
Ocean Renewable also plans to do fish studies in the forelands area, but Johnson wasn't sure if that would happen this summer or next. The company has done some in the northern part of the Cook Inlet, where they originally intended to do a pilot project.
Preliminary work suggests that fish won't be a problem.
"The fish seem to sense that the turbine is there and swim around it," he said.
Environmental studies aren't the company's only summer plans.
"We're going to be doing a lot of site characterization work," Johnson said.
Site characterization includes things like measuring turbidity, the ocean's velocity and figuring what is at the bottom of the inlet.
That work will also help the company figure out the energy available in the inlet. Once Ocean Renewable gathers enough baseline data, it can develop models of the ocean's potential energy.
"What's interesting about tidal energy is it's very predictable," Johnson said.
The testing front isn't the only progress the company has made toward deploying their turbine.
Ocean Renewable and Homer Electric Association formalized their partnership with a letter of intent last month.
The letter is not legally binding, but calls for the parties to eventually sign a Memorandum of Understanding that would outline precisely which resources each company is expected to commit to various components of the project. According to the letter, more specific roles, timelines and financial commitments are expected to be developed in the next year as part of the feasibility phase.
The letter, which is signed by Homer Electric General Manager Brad Janorschke, says that the envisioned project is a 5-megawatt turbine licensed as a pilot project and supplying power to the HEA grid. It also notes that HEA would need approval from Chugach Electric Association to buy power Ocean Renewable before 2014, because of the utilities' power purchase agreement.
Work for the 2011 feasibility phase includes the baseline environmental and site characterization work that Ocean Renewable is conducting, as well as preliminary work on connecting the project to the grid. It also calls for further detailing the schedule for bringing the power online and outlining the companies' relationship.
In 2012, the partners would work on finalizing the project, including applying for a pilot project license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and finishing the design and funding plans, the letter says.
The initial deployment phase, assuming everything came together, would mean that the initial power systems would be deployed in 2013. Then, in 2014 and 2015, Ocean Renewable would finish the complete pilot project.
But that rests on this summer's work and future collaboration with other players in the inlet.
Ocean Renewable is also working with other resource-users in the inlet to make sure that their needs and uses are taken into account as the company determines where it is feasible to deploy a turbine, Johnson said.
And much of the science is being done in collaboration with various federal agencies, as well as the University of Alaska.
Johnson said that the project is affected by the critical habitat designation in the inlet, but that the company has been working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other agencies so the designation doesn't redlight the project.
"We're all working as collaboratively as we can," Johnson said. "So far we don't think it's going to be a problem."