By Julia Pyper
In meeting America’s energy needs, the marine hydrokinetic industry could be the wave of the future.
Harnessing tides, currents and waves produces clean, domestically sourced power that could generate up to one-third of the United States’ total electricity usage, according to Department of Energy. It’s also an industry growing on U.S. shores and bringing jobs to remote areas.
“I think this is the energy of the future for us in so many different ways,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said yesterday at the annual Global Marine Renewable Energy Conference in Washington, D.C.
The Ocean Renewable Power Co. (ORPC) launched the first grid-connected marine hydrokinetic project in the Western Hemisphere late last year at Cobscook Bay in Maine. The 150-kilowatt TidGen device captures energy from tidal currents and delivers it to shore via underwater power cable.
In January, the company generated its first renewable energy credit. By early next year, it plans to put two more 150 kW TidGen devices in the water.
But perhaps the biggest achievement is that ORPC’s first comprehensive environmental reviewreleased yesterday found that the installation — which looks like a giant push mower — had no detrimental effects on the surrounding environment.
“We now have all the science … there are no observed negative interactions between our TidGen power system and the marine environment,” said Christopher Sauer, president and CEO of ORPC. “There is actually nothing that’s been observed to have an adverse impact. I think that’s huge.”
Maze of regulatory hoops “You’ve proven you do have an environmental effect,” said Sean O’Neill, president of the Ocean Renewable Energy Coalition, at yesterday’s symposium. “That’s no SOx [sulfur oxides], no NOx [nitrogen oxides], no carbon, no mercury, no emissions — it’s emissions-free.”
“It’s also not a sushi maker, which is the result of this study,” he said.
The findings represent a landmark moment for the marine renewable industry as a whole. With no precedent to follow, getting approval for marine hydrokinetic projects of all types has required jumping through a seemingly endless number of regulatory hoops, which delays implementation and drives up costs, say supporters.
Most ocean power projects currently have to get separate approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Coast Guard, possibly the Navy and several other agencies before entering the water. In some cases, companies have been asked to provide environmental research that simply doesn’t exist yet.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) expressed concern at yesterday’s symposium that the existing regulatory process could kill the industry before it really begins.
“I sincerely hope we’re going to find a way to develop ocean energy where the federal government can be a partner in this incredibly important resource and not an obstacle that raises the cost of entry to where it becomes unfeasible,” he said.
A budgetary nod Like ORPC, other companies are progressing, too. Verdant Power was actually the first company to receive a commercial license from FERC for its 1-megawatt tidal project in New York City’s East River. The company is now on track to put its first turbines in the water in 2014 and complete installation by 2015.
This spring, New Jersey-based Ocean Power Technologies is preparing to deploy its wave energy device off the coast of Oregon. Columbia Power Technologies will soon begin testing a new, more efficient wave energy product, and Northwest Energy Innovations will start testing its wave energy device at a Navy test site in Hawaii.
All of these projects have received varying levels of financial and technological support from the Department of Energy.
The water power sector, which includes both marine hydrokinetic and conventional hydro, is currently operating on about $56 million in government funding, which includes a 5 percent budget cut from the sequester, according to Jose Zayas, DOE’s wind and water power program manager. Marine hydrokinetic energy receives about two-thirds of DOE’s dedicated water power funding.
In the Obama administration’s new 2014 budget request, the president proposed to boost funding for the renewable water power portfolio to $55 million. The budget request for fiscal 2013 was $20 million.
“What we have done successfully is really shifted the trend, and that is incredibly difficult, especially in the fiscal environment that we’re in,” Zayas said.
“I think it’s just a recognition that this administration is really behind renewable energies, and in this particular case, water power technologies,” he added.
Bipartisan potential Under the president’s proposed budget, actual funding levels for the marine energy industry would essentially stay flat through next year. That is not the increase industry supporters were hoping for, but it is still 88 percent higher than funding levels three years ago, said Murkowski, who has been a strong advocate for marine energy projects off the coast of Alaska.
Even during these rough financial times, she said, she expects Congress will soon pass legislation to support renewable marine energy.
“I really do think you’ll see Congress pass bipartisan legislation to advance marine hydrokinetic research that the president will sign into law. And I don’t usually make predictions about what may happen with legislation going forward, because it’s just such a sketchy world up there on the Hill right now,” she said. “But I’m feeling good about it.”
Murkowski said that she and Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) have already started to craft legislation that would reinforce marine energy testing centers and streamline project approval. But the bill has stalled, since lawmakers haven’t yet found a way to offset the cost.
“We’re looking under rocks,” Murkowski said.