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Harnessing Alaska's wave, tidal, river energy: Great potential, daunting challenges

  • Author: Laurel Andrews
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 25, 2014

A handful of energy projects seeking to harness the energy of Alaska's waves, tides and rivers are inching forward, aiming to bring hydrokinetic energy online in coming years. Come summertime, three river energy projects will be tested in Southcentral and Interior Alaska, aiming to test drive some new technology. But while Alaska's waterways offer great potential as an energy resource, hydrokinetic power faces many hurdles.

In July, the Kvichak River at the mouth of Lake Illiamna will become home to two river energy generators -- the first installed by the Ocean Renewable Power Co., the second by Boschma Research Inc. -- with the aim of powering the community of Igiugig, a village of about 50 people. A third will be set up in the Tanana River near the Interior community of Nenana, home to roughly 400 people.

The Ocean Renewable Power Co.'s turbine generator unit will arrive in Alaska in late May and will be set up in the river in July, CEO Chris Sauer said from Portland, Maine, on Monday.

The company first developed tidal and river energy generators based around Nova Scotia's Bay of Fundy, which has some of highest vertical tide changes in the world. Alaska made sense as the next U.S. location, given its vast size and the immense tidal changes. "Alaska has 90 percent of the total potential for tidal energy in Alaska in the U.S.," Sauer said.

The site at the Kvichak River was chosen by the Alaska Energy Authority, Sauer said, because the river doesn't freeze in winter, and it's close to the community of Igiugig. Eventually, if the unit is successful in running year-round, it will be capable of supplying about half the community's needs.

All three river energy projects taking shape this summer are funded in part by AEA's emerging technology fund. For these projects there's "not an expectation of economic performance," said Alan Baldivieso, program manager with the geothermal, hydrokinetic and emerging energy technologies at AEA. They are a more of a test drive.

The potential for river hydrokinetic projects rests mainly with smaller communities, such as Igiugig, Baldivieso said, as those projects are small and localized. Could wave and tidal projects make a bigger impact in bigger communities? That could be "argued either way," he said.

Hydrokinetic energy "absolutely has promise" for the state, Baldivieso said. "It has quite a few challenges as well."

AEA is a state agency that seeks to reduce the cost of energy in Alaska. Among other duties, AEA provides grant money for renewable energy and emerging technology projects. Last year, the Emerging Technology Fund had $2 million to distribute. This fiscal year, the fund has received no appropriations in the Legislature.

While the Emerging Technology Fund focuses on innovation, a separate program, the Renewable Energy Fund, provides grants based on economic viability. "Cost-benefit analysis is pretty key to projects getting recommended," Baldivieso said. Wind energy, biomass and heat recovery are among the various technologies that have received funding. The Renewable Energy Fund received about $20 million in the current budget, said Emily Ford, AEA's public outreach liaison.

Potential for power, but challenges remain

The biggest challenge is creating a project that will be economically viable in rural Alaska. "You need to have a resource that's within striking distance of where these communities are," Baldivieso said, to temper the high price of connecting the resource to the electric grid. Meanwhile, the cost of doing business in Bush Alaska is steep.

The challenge of high costs is visible in the Ocean Renewable Power Co.'s work to install a tidal energy project in False Pass, a community of about 35 people at the tip of the Alaska Peninsula. A tidal generator set up in False Pass could provide power for the entire community, Sauer said, and the results of feasibility study last summer far exceeded researchers' expectations.

Community support for the project is strong, City Clerk Chris Emrich said from False Pass on Monday, but so far, the funding isn't there. Sauer estimated the cost of the tidal energy generator would be somewhere in the low millions.

Emrich said that the city is looking for funding through the Senate Appropriations Committee, and that they've been in touch with Sen. Mark Begich's office. "We're just trying to get more funding into the renewable energy sector," Emrich said.

Right now, False Pass receives money to offset the high prices of power through the AEA's Power Cost Equalization program, which lowers residential costs to about 14 cents per kilowatt hour. But a tidal generator would realize savings for businesses not eligible for the AEA's equalization program.

ORPC also has its sight set on a tidal energy project in Cook Inlet, about 75 miles south of Anchorage near the community of Nikiski. The company has conducted site assessment work, but there's no way ORPC can compete with existing energy sources. "There are no price incentives in the state of Alaska; it's very hard to compete with natural gas," Sauer said.

Anchorage-based Little Susitna Construction Company is also eyeing a tidal energy project in Cook Inlet, which has the highest tidal range in the U.S., and the fourth highest in the world, according the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. President Dominic S.F. Lee envisions a project that could reduce electricity rates to 1 cent per kilowatt hour, compared to the 14 cents per kilowatt hour from Municipal Light & Power. Cheap energy translates to increased industry in the state and more jobs, Lee said. In addition, major environmental benefits would be realized.

The company received its preliminary permit in February, and is in the process of conducting environmental studies. Lee said that funding for the project is coming from an international financing company, which he declined to name. The plan is to sell the electricity to Chugach Electric Company and Anchorage Municipal Light and Power. His project, however, is still years in the making.

Meanwhile, ORPC has been tapped to work on project development with Resolute Marine Energy for a wave power project in Yakutat that, if successful, would be the first commercial wave energy generator project in the nation.

Yakutat looks to rejuvenate community with wave power

Boston-based Resolute Marine Energy is hoping its project in Yakutat will be installed late next year. The company first got involved in the Yakutat project in 2011, after reading a 2009 report regarding Yakutat's vast potential for wave energy.

Resolute Marine Energy received their approved preliminary permit application early last year, CEO Bill Staby said from Boston on Monday. That means the company has first dibs on the site if they choose to build.

The area they are looking at is 8 miles wide, 3 miles out from the coastline. They hope to start out by placing five wave energy units, called flaps, somewhere in that 24-square-mile radius. The flaps must be placed "where mother nature will let you put (them)," Staby said. That means where the units can be placed without fear that they will be damaged. Each flap would produce 50 kilowatts per hour, producing roughly a quarter of Yakutat's energy needs.

The company would add more units from there. "We have to be careful with integration issues," Staby said, and "take it one step at a time."

Hurdles remain, however. The company is now in the process of conducting extensive environmental studies in coordination with a number of agencies including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service.

So far, funding for research and project development has mostly come from grants from the U.S. Department of Energy to the tune of $5 million. The City and Borough of Yakutat is contributing staff time and the use of boats.

If the project enters the next stage, Resolute Marine Energy would likely set up a separate entity that would find both lenders and investors to begin construction. Then, the City and Borough of Yakutat would purchase the energy from that entity. And "hopefully there's enough profit left over for the investors to earn their return," Staby said.

Staby is "pretty confident that we can come in at about half of what Yakutat's current price (of electricity) is."

"All these rural communities that rely on diesel converters for their energy are in the same boat," Staby said. "The economic and social impact is, you know, pretty gruesome."

For now, the company is "plodding ahead. It's slow, but we'll get there," Staby said.

Scott Newlun, general manager at Yakutat Power, said he has been pushing wave energy development ever since he first became manager 15 years ago.

The project has now been collecting environmental data for a year, and it has another year to go before a demonstration wave generator can be put into the water.

Newlun said the project is crucial to lowering energy prices and, in turn, promoting population and business growth. Yakutat is "trying to develop this thing to save the economy of the community," he said. High energy prices have driven people out of town, causing the population to decline over the past decade.

Power costs roughly $.55 per kilowatt hour, according to the Yakutat city website, translating to about $200 to $250 monthly for an average household, Newlun said, and much more for businesses. The generator that provides power to the community burns around 25,000 gallons of diesel fuel a month.

Newlun believes renewable energy resources will allow the community to preserve its surroundings while encouraging people to return to the community. "In my opinion, Alaska has the most pristine environment that we want to protect. At the same time, we have some of the harshest weather conditions," so the wave generator units will have to be built to withstand the elements, he said.

"I know it's going to work," Newlun said of the wave generator project. He sees it as just a matter of time.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named Ocean Renewable Power Co. The earlier version article also stated that ORPC developed wave energy technology, rather than tidal energy technology. It has been updated to reflect the correct information.

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