A new wave of energy: Company studying tidal power in Cook Inlet

Posted: Wednesday, March 23, 2011

As the liquified natural gas plant in Nikiski prepares for its final shipments, a tidal power company is preparing to begin collecting environmental data in the same area.

Ocean Renewable Power Company received a permit to begin studying the area last week. Tuesday, it held a meeting at the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association building to discuss its Cook Inlet projects with Kenai Peninsula residents. Eventually, the company wants to capture hydrokinetic energy for Alaskans to use.

Company President and CEO Christopher Sauer said hydrokinetic means using the motion of the water to create energy.

Just who would buy the power is still an unknown, although Sauer said it is likely that the company would sell some of their turbines and also deploy some to sell the resulting electricity. ORPC sees its potential buyers as railbelt utility companies or even oil platforms that are currently using diesel to generate electricity, Sauer said.

But that is a few years out. Right now, the company has a permit to establish baseline environmental data. Essentially, it wants to see how fish and whales use the area, said Monty Worthington, the company's project development director.

Ocean Renewable Power has three years to do that work -- and then they'll receive priority in applying for a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission permit for a pilot project, Worthington said.

Bob Shavelson, from the Homer-based environmental organization Cook Inletkeeper, said the permitting process would likely be tough for the company.

Worthington said the company was trying to find the best location to get a project permitted.

That project would be on a small-scale, to see if it's feasible to do a larger project in the area, Worthington said.

If the company sees that beluga are incompatible with the technology, there's no project he said.

Last spring, the Maine-based company began similar work at a Fire Island site in the north Cook Inlet. Worthington said that bulk of that work is done. Now they're largely focused on the Nikiski site, called East Forelands.

The Cook Inlet is ideal for tidal power for a number of reasons, Worthington said. Most simply, there's a lot of power. More importantly, that power is close to the railbelt utility grid, where electricity is needed.

The Nikiski location has its own perks.

In that area, the ocean has about the right amount of energy for the technology Ocean Renewable Power has developed.

Sauer said that Alaskan waters can get up to 10 knots, but six to eight is the sweet spot for ORPC's technology. East Forelands falls into that range.

"It's another reason we're interested in this site," Sauer said.

The area is also farther from the protected Beluga whale population than the Fire Island site, but still has plenty of industrial infrastructure.

"There's electrical infrastructure of a real industrial scale," Worthington said.

That's largely because of the variety of industries operating in the area: various oil and gas developments, as well as commercial fishing sites. Ocean Renewable Power's goal is to cooperate with all of those entities so that the project best fits into the area.

The company has conducted a pilot project in Maine, and developed much of their technology there -- from the turbines themselves, to the equipment and techniques used to do environmental monitoring. Now they're tweaking it for their Alaskan projects.

One Alaska-specfic challenge is glacial silt. The company is working with University of Alaska Anchorage to test components of their turbines in a flume that mimics ocean conditions, Worthington said. It wants to see how silt might affect a turbine's life (and maintenance requirements) before they're deployed in Alaskan waters.

Another difficulty is finding a way to monitor the sound their turbines generate, and how that might affect life under the sea.

Sauer said the company has been working on developing acoustic monitoring equipment that works in high current areas.

The monitoring device is called a spar bouy. It has a microphone that eliminates outside noise so that it can catch the sound of the turbines operating.

"We can actually hear boulders rolling around on the bottom," Sauer said.

From its work so far, the company knows that when the turbine generator is operating but not producing electricity, it's quieter than the ambient noise. When the electric load is added, there's a humming sound but not one they can quantify.

"That's what we hope the spar bouy will be able to do," Sauer said.

The turbine, another technology developed by the company, is also still in the works, Sauer said.

The turbine is made of a composite material, somewhat similar to an airplane wing, and spins as water pushes against it. Rectangular sections of the composite wrap around in a cylindrical shape, a cross between the double-helix shape of DNA and an enlarged toilet paper tube.

"We've absolutely proven this model in Maine," Sauer said.

Ocean Renewable Power recently finished testing a turbine in Eastport, Maine.

Although it won't be deploying turbines in Alaskan waters this year, the company has started to develop an idea of what set-up might work best. Essentially, the company plans to use multiple small turbines in various configurations depending on the conditions of a given location. It is also developing turbines for use in rivers, and working towards a project that would produce power in the Tanana River.

Right now, the project's Alaska funding has come from the private and federal sources. Doug Johnson, the company's business development director, said the project has made it onto the Alaska Renewable Energy Fund list more than once, but never received funding from that source. The fund typically has a longer list of eligible projects than it does available dollars. It's back on the list this year.

"We're really hopeful this session we'll get our funding from the renewable energy fund," Worthington said.

Although community members present had questions, they were positive about the project.

"I know my organization is very supportive of this and the conservation community generally is too," Shavelson said. "Anything we can do, we'd like to help."

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@peninsulaclarion.com.

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