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Whidbey tides may churn electricity

Brian Polagye of the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center shows video of a research tool, called a Sea Spider, that was used to evaluate the turbine site and test different materials for their ability to withstand the harsh underwater environment. Polagye spoke at the Coupeville Rec Center about the tidal energy project’s field study that began in April 2009. - Jenny Manning/Whidbey News-Times
Brian Polagye of the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center shows video of a research tool, called a Sea Spider, that was used to evaluate the turbine site and test different materials for their ability to withstand the harsh underwater environment. Polagye spoke at the Coupeville Rec Center about the tidal energy project’s field study that began in April 2009.
— image credit: Jenny Manning/Whidbey News-Times

The Snohomish Public Utility District and the Department of the Navy are making waves in the alternative tidal energy arena near Whidbey Island.

Both the PUD and the Navy are knee-deep in plans to harness Puget Sound’s tidal energy through in-water turbine technology, which involves the use of turbines placed on the sea floor to generate electricity as tides flow in and out of Puget Sound.

Officials report that the two separate turbine technologies could be installed as early as 2011.

If all goes well with the Snohomish PUD’s tidal power project in Admiralty Inlet, Whidbey Island may eventually rely less heavily on off-island power sources.

Craig Collar of the PUD and Navy representatives met with a crowd of nearly 80 at the Coupeville Recreation Hall Wednesday evening. The Island County Economic Development Council and Rep. Norma Smith hosted the alternative tidal energy presentation.

“If this comes to fruition, the lights, TV, etc., will be powered by tidal turbine,” Collar said.

PUD interest in tidal energy stems from the need to serve an ever-expanding population in the Northwest, and to meet mandatory renewable energy requirements.

“It’s completely clean, zero emissions and it’s completely predictable,” Collar said, adding that since the power is generated near energy customers, less will be lost during transmission.

Officials estimate that 10 percent of energy customers’ demands could be met through wave and tidal power.

Island County Commissioner Angie Homola questioned the number of turbines needed in order to generate an amount of power equivalent to the Bonneville dam, a monumental power production facility built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the Columbia River in 1937.

Collar estimated that approximately 150 turbines would be equivalent, but that there’s a lot of testing to be done before any decisions are made to install any more than the two turbines that are part of the pilot project.

Snohomish PUD began testing the turbines, also called Open Hydro Devices, in 2006. Mostly made of steel, the turbines weigh about 400 pounds each.

The project has received $2.2 million in funding from the Washington State Department of Energy and the federal government.

Each turbine will rest on the sea floor, Collar said, so installation and removal will have little impact on marine life.

As for the Navy’s project, Congress commissioned the Navy to test tidal energy, said Brian Cable, project manager for the Navy’s Puget Sound Kinetic Hydropower System Demonstration Project.

“The Navy did not ask for the funding, we did not ask for the project, we’re executing the wishes of Congress,” said Cable. “It’s essentially a demonstration test for 12 months.”

Since 2008 the Navy has spent $5.6 million in congressionally appropriated funds on the turbine project, according to Sheila Murray, Environmental Public Affairs spokeswoman.

Although the exact location hasn’t been chosen, the Navy will likely position two tri-frame structures, with three turbines each, off the south end of Marrowstone Island, west of Whidbey Island. The machines resemble traditional wind-powered turbines and are built by Verdant Power, a New York-based company.

Tidal energy may someday allow Navy installations world-wide to be energy independent.

“To have energy independence on a Navy base is a safety factor. If we had our own generating capacity and we could create our own energy, that would be a good thing,” he said.

The Navy isn’t testing the turbines for commercial purposes, he said.

“We’re not interested in owning and operating these machines.”

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