LES BLUMENTHAL, The Bellingham Herald, May 30, 2009
The Obama administration has proposed a 25% cut in the research and development budget for one of the most promising renewable energy sources in the Northwest – wave and tidal energy. At the same time the White House sought an 82% increase in solar power research funding, a 36% increase in wind power funding and a 14% increase in geothermal funding. But it looked to cut wave and tidal research funding from $40 million to $30 million.
The decision to cut funding came only weeks after the Interior Department suggested that wave power could emerge as the leading offshore energy source in the Northwest and at a time when efforts to develop tidal power in Puget Sound are attracting national and international attention. By some estimates, wave and tidal power could eventually meet 10% of the nation’s electricity demand, about the same as hydropower currently delivers.
Some experts have estimated that if only 0.2% of energy in ocean waves could be harnessed, the power produced would be enough to supply the entire world. In addition to Puget Sound and the Northwest coast, tidal and wave generators have been installed, planned or talked about in New York’s East River, in Maine, Alaska, off Atlantic City, N.J., and Hawaii. However, they’d generate only small amounts of power.
The Europeans are leaders when it comes to tidal and wave energy, with projects considered, planned or installed in Spain, Portugal, Scotland, Ireland and Norway. There have also been discussions about projects in South Korea, the Philippines, India and Canada’s Maritime provinces.
The proposed cut, part of the president’s budget submitted to Congress, has disappointed Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “Wave and tidal power holds great promise in helping to meet America’s long-term energy needs,” Murray said, adding that Washington state is a leader in its development. “It’s time for the Department of Energy to focus on this potential. But playing budget games won’t get the work done.” Murray’s staff said that while $16.8 billion in the recently passed stimulus bill is reserved for renewable energy and energy efficiency, none of it is earmarked for wave and tidal power.
Energy Department spokesman Tom Welch, however, said the Obama administration is asking for 10 times more for tidal and wave power than the Bush administration did. “The trend line is up,” Welch said. “The department is collaborating with industry, regulators and other stakeholders to develop water resources, including conventional hydro.”
Murray sees it differently. Congress appropriated $40 million for the current year, so the Obama administration proposal actually would cut funding by a fourth. Utility officials involved in developing tidal energy sources said the administration’s approach was shortsighted. “We need all the tools in the tool belt,” said Steve Klein, general manager of the Snohomish County Public Utility District. “It’s dangerous to anoint certain sources and ignore others.”
The Snohomish PUD could have a pilot plant using three tidal generators installed on a seabed in Puget Sound in 2011. The tidal generators, built by an Irish company, are 50 feet tall and can spin either way depending on the direction of the tides. The units will be submerged, with 80 feet of clearance from their tops to the water’s surface. They’ll be placed outside of shipping channels and ferry routes. The pilot plant is expected to produce one megawatt of electricity, or enough to power about 700 homes. If the pilot plant proves successful, the utility would consider installing a project that powered 10,000 homes.
“A lot of people are watching us,” Klein said. The Navy, under pressure from Congress to generate 25% of its power from renewable sources by 2025, will install a pilot tidal generating project in Puget Sound near Port Townsend next year.
In Washington state, law requires that the larger utilities obtain 15% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. The law sets up interim targets of 3% by 2012 and 9% by 2016. Most of the attention so far has focused on developing large wind farms east of the Cascade Mountains. Because wind blows intermittently, however, the region also needs a more reliable source of alternative energy.
Tidal and wave fit that need. Also, at least with tidal, the generators would be closer to population centers than the wind turbines in eastern Washington. “The potential is significant and (tidal and wave) could accomplish a large fraction of the renewable energy portfolio for the state,” said Charles Brandt, director of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s marine sciences lab in Sequim.