Turbine technology generates waves

Natural Currents Energy Group considering 200 kilowatt project in Gastineau Channel

Posted: Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A New York state-based company says Gastineau Channel might be a good place to test out - and show off - the power of tidal energy.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File

"I think it's a great idea to have something that people can see," said Chris Rose of the Renewable Energy Alaska Project.

Tidal is about where wind energy was 25 years ago, according to Rose. He says it took the wind industry all those years to get from 90 cents per kilowatt-hour to 3 cents. But this time, he thinks the industry may benefit from people's hunger for energy independence and cleaner fuels.

"All of those factors are driving venture capital into tidal (energy) much faster than they were into wind," Rose said.

Companies are rushing, Gold Rush-style, to stake out tidal sites as turbine technology improves. Alaska has 90 percent of the nation's tidal potential, and Southeast has some spots - as fishermen, sailors and renewable-energy experts know - with rip-roaring tides. With this technology, speed's the key.

The Electric Power Research Institute Inc., known as EPRI, found six likely sites in 2006. One, Cross Sound and Inian Pass, just north of Elfin Cove, contains a "massive energy potential, more than enough to meet the region's energy needs and enough to allow export of valuable green energy to Canada and the Pacific Northwest."

Gastineau Channel didn't make that EPRI list.

One company staked it out several years ago but let its permits lapse.

Roger Bason, president and founder of Natural Currents Energy Group, picked it up after that company surrendered its permits.

"We looked at it and came to maybe a different opinion," he said.

The project is very small, in a utility's terms.

Bason's application to federal energy regulators envisions six to 12 turbines, about two to 2.5 meters across, anchored to the sea floor or pivoting docks, with a total capacity of 200 kilowatts. The turbines would hook into the grid, selling energy to the local utility or a single end-user.

It's about enough to power 20 to 30 homes, according to Alaska Electric Light and Power Co. spokesman Scott Willis.

If the company gets a permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, it will have three years to apply for a license to develop the project.

Gastineau's pros: It's right near the grid. As with lake hydro projects, the most powerful tidal areas aren't necessarily where the people are. Inian Pass is far from significant loads. Transmission lines are costly and not always reliable, as Juneau residents have learned during a couple avalanches in the last year.

Another pro would be a canny show-and-tell in the capital city. Tidal companies like Bason's are banking heavily on public money to jump-start projects. Natural Currents currently has about a 50-50 split of public and private funding.

"We could install some turbines close to the waterfront and show the legislators," Bason said.

Natural Currents is looking at about a dozen other sites, mostly in the Northeast. A partly state-funded New Jersey site is the furthest along. Development may depend on public funding even for sites that prove feasible.

"If we get funding, that would probably accelerate our interest there," Bason said. "If we didn't, it may drop to the bottom of the list."

The Juneau project is Natural Current's second application to study tidal in the area. The other, in Kootznahoo Inlet, is aimed at powering Angoon, a community that needs clean, cheap energy much more than Juneau.

For that 400 kilowatt project, the company applied for but was denied money from the state's first round of renewable energy funding.

A downside of tidal: Nobody knows what the environmental impacts are yet, because so few have gone into the water. The National Marine Fisheries Service is excited about tidal projects, but there is some concern about the effects on fish and marine mammals, according to NMFS researcher Sue Walker.

"At this point there aren't any potential dealbreakers," she said.

Bason said impacts are likely to be minimal. He has worked on the few projects that are in the water, including a test project in the East River of New York and one off Florida's coast. Bason said fish naturally avoid the fast-flowing water where turbines are. The manatees and porpoises in Florida, he said, "had no interest in the turbines."

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.

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