Anyone who has spent time on the waters near Homer can tell you that there’s no question there is a lot of tidal energy in the Cook Inlet. Since 2011, the Homer Electric Association has been eyeing that energy as a possible source of power for the area, partnering with Ocean Renewable Power Company to explore the idea.
At last week’s association board meeting, attendees got their first taste of what the project might look at when investor Doug Johnson described the company’s pilot project, a tidal turbine generator unit in Eastport, Maine, which was deployed last summer.
Board member Jim Levine, who said his interest in tidal energy preceded his election to the board, said the turbine generator resembles a large handpush lawnmower, though it turns much slower than a lawnmower turns. Though the project is still very much in the research and funding stage in Alaska, the potential for a similar pilot project at the East Foreland site near Nikiski seems plausible so far, Johnson said. If successful, the tidal energy turbine could produce up to 5 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 2,300 Kenai Peninsula homes.
Currently, power in Southcentral Alaska comes mainly from natural gas, though the Bradley Lake hydroelectric plant provides more than 10 percent of the power for Homer Electric customers, Levine said. The new technology is not without its challenges, however. Johnson noted that Cook Inlet silt could cause problems with its constant abrasive activity.
The company said it is currently talking with the oil industry in the Inlet to find out how it has dealt with that problem, and is hearing that it is a mixed blessing. Apparently the silt keeps plants and other debris from building up on equipment.
Another big challenge is going to be ice, Johnson said. Preliminary studies show some large chunks of ice moving along the bottom of the inlet, chunks that could cause serious damage to a tidal generator. Some of the “neutrally buoyant” ice chunks are as big as a boxcar.
“We think these things could be like bowling balls coming down the inlet,” he said.
The endangered beluga whale population is another issue, and one Johnson said he and the company has been working hand in hand with regulators on since the beginning of the project’s exploration. One Alaskan who saw the Maine tidal generator commented that it looked like a “giant beluga sushi maker” but Johnson said initial research and experience in Maine shows that most marine life senses the slowly spinning turbine and either swims through it unharmed or around it.
“We don’t think it has a detrimental effect on marine life,” Johnson said. “Belugas are pretty smart animals. I think they are going to see this and swim around it. But we have to prove it.” A $600,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy awarded in 2009 has allowed the company to monitor the whales with state-of-art passive hyroacoustic technology, the company reports.
The final major hurdle for tidal energy in the inlet, however, is perhaps the greatest — money. The Maine project cost about $21 million, including research and development, design, fabrication, installation and environmental monitoring. Funding for that project came from private and public investors, and the company has a 20-year contract to sell its tidal-produced energy to the Maine utility for 21.5 cents a kilowatt hour, which is about double Maine’s average electricity price. Johnson said such subsidies made the project possible in Maine, and the company is pursuing similar investment in Alaska, talking with the state as well as private investors.
“We are looking for state investors — long-term partners who want to bring new technology to the market place,” Johnson said. One such investor may be the Department of Defense, he said, with which the company is currently in discussions.
But investment aside, the company is moving forward with feasibility and site characterization work, conducting surveys of the East Foreland site. In addition, it is working with the village of Igiugig on the Kvichak River near Lake Iliamna to install its river current generating system, a low profile power system that is similar in design to the tidal electricity generating system. That project is expected to be built, tested and installed next year, the company said. Johnson said electric costs are so high in some rural communities in Alaska that even with the costs of installing a prototype, the electricity would still be generated at a lower cost than what customers are paying.
Johnson told the assembled board members and staff that the Nikiski pilot project could be the beginning of a much larger installation of tidal energy generators in the Inlet, with installations throughout the inlet over the next 20 years.
Levine said moving toward energy sources such as the tidal energy project is why he got on the board in the first place, and the inlet seems like the perfect place for such a project in terms of its large tides. While he said Homer Electric couldn’t fund an experiment like the tidal energy generator, it certainly can commit to buying the power, he said.
With predictions that natural gas could run out in coming years, tidal energy’s appeal increases, he said. You can read more about Ocean Renewable Power Company here.
The preceding report was first published by The Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.