by KATE GALBRAITH & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & tanding on a bridge high above the rushing emerald waters at Deception Pass, a narrow strait in Washington's Puget Sound, Craig Collar voices a sense of wonder. "Just think about the power there," he says. With flows of up to eight knots (a bit more than nine miles per hour), the site has "definitely the highest currents in the Sound."
Could this powerful tide someday light up homes? Collar, the senior manager of energy-resource development for the Snohomish Public Utility District, will spend the next several years finding out. Following passage of a statewide ballot initiative last year, Washington's big utilities were required to beef up their renewable energy sources -- not including traditional hydropower. Collar believes that underwater turbines turned by tides at Deception Pass and elsewhere in the Sound can one day provide electricity for up to 60,000 homes. And the Snohomish utility is hardly alone in testing the waters: Up and down the West Coast, utilities and private developers worried about climate change and oil dependency are putting money into this newest source of power -- the Pacific Ocean.
Ocean power in the West is only in the preliminary stages -- there are no devices in the water on the West Coast -- but already environmentalists, fishermen and even divers are gearing up for a battle. They're concerned about possible impacts to fish and scenery. Deception Pass is not only one of the most-visited state parks in Washington, but also an "outstanding natural area that has every salmon from the Snohomish and Skagit [running] through it," says Steve Erickson of the Whidbey Island Environmental Action Network. "This is not a place to experiment."
In the San Juan Islands, ocean machines have been jokingly referred to as "orca blenders," says Amy Trainer, staff attorney with Friends of the San Juans. Her group is concerned about the potential development of two sites in Puget Sound. "It's a tricky position for everybody," she says, "because we obviously want alternative energy, but it has to be done responsibly."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he potential of ocean energy is vast, but the technology is mostly unproven. Water is roughly 800 times denser than air, meaning it can pack tremendous energy. With the ocean's energy, the U.S. could potentially generate enough power to meet 10 percent of current national electricity demand, according to Roger Bedard of the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit that's leading the research in the field.
Ocean energy breaks down into two main categories -- tidal and wave. The West has both in abundance. Tidal power, the type considered for Deception Pass and seven other sites around the Sound, harnesses the ocean's twice-daily ebbs and flows using underwater turbines, which are similar to wind turbines. Wave energy, which harnesses the up-and-down motion of water to turn electric generators, has far more potential than tidal. The number of good tidal sites is finite, but waves are virtually unlimited.
Wave devices are generally stationed a few miles offshore, since the waves' energy declines markedly at depths of 40 meters or less, according to George Hagerman, an ocean-energy expert at Virginia Tech. Transmitting the energy to shore is therefore a challenge. There are many competing types of wave technology, from buoys to floating "sea snakes" 120 meters long. A big wave farm, the first in the world, is expected to open off the coast of Portugal later this year.
Within the West, Alaska has by far the strongest potential for both tidal and wave power, says Bedard. But the state has relatively few consumers of energy, and it's difficult to transmit its power to the Lower 48 -- or even to places in Alaska.
That leaves Oregon and Northern California as particularly promising for wave development. Washington has great waves, but the Olympic Peninsula blocks transmission to Seattle.
Ocean Power Technologies aims to open a big wave park off the coast of Reedsport, Ore. Eventually, the company hopes to deploy 200 "Power Buoys," producing at least 50 megawatts and taking up about 1.25 square miles of ocean.
"We're very concerned," says Hugh Link of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, which represents over 400 permitted crabbing boats. "You put 200 of them out there, and it will take a significant amount of traditional fishing ground."
Puget Sound's prospective tidal sites are also popular with divers. Riding the current is "like flying," explains Mike Racine of the Washington SCUBA Alliance, an experience that could be ruined by underwater turbines. However, he adds, "It's not a simple situation. Renewable energy sources are important and merit-worthy." He plans to lobby for new dive sites as compensation for any lost spots.
Some observers hark back to the West's one-time embrace of dams. "We heard very similar comments about hydro-power decades ago -- it's cheap, clean, all those nice catchphrases. We're living with the results, good and bad," says Clint Muns, director of resource management for the Puget Sound Anglers State Board.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he large number of stakeholders, including tribes, fishermen and recreational users, adds to the complexity of a regulatory process that is still adapting to a brand-new industry. Although getting a preliminary study permit has been easy, the process for obtaining a full marine-energy license from FERC is "the same as building the Hoover Dam," says Bedard. The agency is likely to streamline the process, however.
FERC is also trying to address concerns about "site banking" -- shell companies hogging the best sites by attaining preliminary study permits, much as Internet squatters snag promising domain names. Attorneys for the city of San Francisco, in a filing this summer to FERC, went so far as to warn of "the risk of sparking a 'gold rush' by ill-prepared applicants with ill-conceived projects."
Developers must generally get a separate permit from the Army Corps of Engineers and also consult with the Coast Guard. Plenty of other federal agencies give input to FERC as well, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and each project will receive scrutiny at the state and local levels. There is also a lively debate about whether FERC or the Minerals Management Service should have jurisdiction for offshore projects in federal waters, which begin three miles offshore.
It took Verdant Power, operator of a tidal project in New York, almost four years to get its turbines operating, according to Trey Taylor of Verdant. He complains that regulators wanted the impossible: to understand the impact on fish even before Verdant started its experiment. "The regulatory processes need to be streamlined," he says.
But others fear that things are already proceeding too fast. "If the snowball starts to move, how do we stop it?" asks Muns. "We're not opposing this, [but] we need to be sure that what we do is good."
This article originally appeared in High Country News, (www.hcn.org), which covers the West's communities and natural-resource issues from Paonia, Colo.