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Tidal energy potential in Aleutians blows expectations out of water

Hannah Heimbruch

Tidal power technology is one of the newest forays into alternative energy. Its development has a long way to go, but its potential is raising science eyebrows around the country. Right now, that interest is directed at False Pass, a far-flung Alaska town in the Aleutians Islands chain.

A recent feasibility study aimed to evaluate how much juice a power generator could get by harnessing the tidal movement through narrow Isanotski Strait. After going over the books, researchers' expectations are being blown out of the water.

"If somebody could figure out how to get high-voltage HVDC cable weight out in the Aleutians, we could power the whole country with tidal energy," said Bruce Wright, the senior scientist for the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association. "Eventually, if we can do this project correctly and we can advance this technology, we could put these things throughout the Aleutians, hook them up to high voltage DC current line, and I think the energy potential ... is incredible."

'Legendary current velocities'

Monty Worthington at Ocean Renewable Power Company Alaska, which conducted the study, agrees that the potential is great for False Pass to be a power mecca with this new technology.

"False Pass is legendary for its high current velocities," Worthington said in an Aleutians East Borough release. "You have a large body of water on either side (of False Pass). The Pacific Ocean is on one side, and the Bering Sea is on the other, with this really narrow pass in between them. It creates very swift current velocities."

Two acoustic Doppler profilers took readings for a month in the churning waters off False Pass. One was near town, Wright said, because that would potentially be the site easiest to access via cable. Another was approximately a mile south of town near the narrow. "It's the location that fishermen would tell you that that's where the current flows the most," Wright said.

The one farther from town definitely had the stronger potential, he said, and not just stronger than the other False Pass research site, but stronger than any site around the country.

'Very promising'

"The data says the place where we suspected the highest currents would be (in the narrowest, straightest parts of the pass) is very strong," Worthington said. "I would characterize it as a robust tidal energy resource. Of all the sites our company has measured, it's the strongest resource that we're aware of, and it has the highest current velocities. It's very promising."

So what comes next?

With a new technology like this, there's a lot of research to be done, Wright said. That starts with studies of the ocean bottom and how exactly permanent power turbines would impact marine life.

"There's whale migrations that go through there," Wright said. "I'm not too concerned about the fish because the fish tend to avoid the turbine design we're looking at, it turns pretty slowly. But that needs to be investigated."

So there's work to be done. Even with more established mechanisms of alternative energy, implementing a new power generating station in a many-year process. "The hydro project in Atka just cranked up this year," Wright said, "and they've been working on that for over a decade, and that was proven technology."

'Cutting-edge science'

That has not at all deterred Wright from his enthusiasm about the potential of tidal power in the Aleutians. "It's cutting edge science," Wright said. And that science has the potential to have long term impacts on communities, as well as industry.

APICDA, the CDQ group operating in False Pass is set to expand their fish processing plant.

"And that facility needs a lot of energy," Wright said. "Instead of just putting in more diesel fire systems we're hoping in the long term we can power that mostly with renewable energy."

False Pass is a place where this newer energy technology could be developed, he said, over time and with careful consideration of environment, maintenance needs and infrastructure costs. While he'd love for that timeline to be in the two- or three- year range, he said, 10 years is a more-reasonable estimate.

Worthington points out that while wind power is a more established source in the region at this point, tidal energy could prove to be more stable.

"You can probably count on the fact that it's going to blow most of the time in False Pass, but you don't really know when and how hard," Worthington said. "As you study the tidal currents, you're able to very accurately predict when they will flow and how hard. So you can essentially have a system that's programmed on a schedule to work with what you know is coming."

A final report on the data collected at False Pass will be out in June, Wright said, and from there concerns about potential projects will start to be addressed.

According to the Aleutians East Borough, partners on a power project of this sort would likely be the City of False Pass, the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association and APICDA.

"I've worked on a lot of projects in Alaska," said Worthington. "To me, this is the most exciting one. False Pass's tidal resource is unique and has all the ingredients of a successful project. There's also a synergy between the community and the local businesses that could really help to move it forward quickly and effectively."

For more information about the ocean energy project in False Pass, visit environmentalaska.us/false-pass-ocean-energy-project.html.

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times. Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at hheimbuch(at)reportalaska.com