Currents of Change

Local experts rely on teamwork and patience to bring tidal power to the Northwest.
By Amelia Apfel |   July 2010   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
Illustration courtesy of Snohomish PUD

The Snohomish Public Utility District is leading the way in
developing a source of tidal power: turbines that sit on the seabed and make
electricity from subsurface ocean currents.

If you’ve ever watched the ocean during a storm, you know
how powerful it is. Surges can swallow whole chunks of the coast, leaving
disaster in their wake. Yet the real power is deep below the surface, where
tidal currents are strong even on a calm day. Two leaders of a local utility
are working hard to prove that those tides can be a clean, renewable source of energy
for local communities.

As head of Tacoma Power, Steve Klein led efforts in 2005 to
secure tidal power permits for the Tacoma Narrows. Since taking the position of
CEO at the Snohomish County Public Utility District (SnoPUD), the 12th largest
power utility in the country, he has continued to work toward making tidal
energy in the Northwest a reality. Last winter, SnoPUD submitted a preliminary
application for a pilot project in Admiralty Inlet, a channel off the western
shore of Whidbey Island. After approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory
Commission (FERC), the district hopes to file a final permit application next month
and get its license by January 2011.

In the meantime, the district isn’t sitting idle. Research
partners such as the University of Washington, Beam Reach (a marine biology
program based in Seattle that takes college students on 10-week research trips)
and an orca whale advocacy and research group have been collecting data from
sites in Puget Sound for more than a year.
“We’re some of the first to be tapping this [field] from the academic side,”
says University of Washington oceanographer Jim Thomson. With limited funding,
small companies are cautious about sharing discoveries, and most projects keep
their methods and findings strictly private. This approach means that
researchers began work with a mostly blank slate, measuring current speed and
composition, biological activity and human use at various locations.

“It’s breaking a new trail, absolutely,” says Craig Collar,
senior manager for Energy Resource Development at SnoPUD. The university
publishes its data to the web within weeks, and is focused on developing a
methodology that can be standardized and put to use by other organizations.

Tidal power is not widely embraced by energy pioneers. Bill
Gates dismissed it as a secondary option in his speech at the Technology,
Entertainment, Design (TED) conference in February, citing carbon capture,
wind, solar photovoltaic, solar thermal and nuclear as the five best options
for that “necessary miracle”: reducing carbon

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