Plans for what would have been the West Coast’s first tidal-energy project will likely be scrapped after the Snohomish County Public Utility District (PUD) invested eight years and at least $3.5 million developing it.
The costs of construction and monitoring for the research project — which would have tested the energy output of two, 20-foot-diameter turbines slowly moved by underwater currents — have turned out to be nearly double the initial estimates.
Energy was to be delivered from a depth of 200 feet in the Admiralty Inlet to at least 100 Whidbey Island homes to test the viability of the energy source and its effect on the environment. Whidbey Island is currently served by Puget Sound Energy.
Steven Klein, Snohomish County PUD’s general manager, said Tuesday that when the utility first partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) on the project in 2006, both parties knew that the initial $20 million estimate was “a shot in the dark.” The department’s contribution was fixed at $10 million.
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The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued a license for the project in March of this year.
But when more specific bids and estimates came in this summer, Klein said, it became evident the project would cost at least $37 million, because of increased material costs and development of expensive environmental-monitoring methods. Klein said he met with DOE officials in July hoping that if the utility put up an additional $8.5 million, so would DOE. But on Friday, the DOE confirmed it would not.
“During the course of the project, you’re always being asked, ‘What’s the cost?’ But it’s a moving target,” Klein said. “I don’t think anyone thinks this is not worthy of funding — the problem is that DOE made it appear that getting additional funds would be a difficult task.”
Klein said that for the sake of the project that the utility has invested $3.5 million in, he remains open to a funding miracle, but he doesn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up. He said the scrapping of the project is a huge blow to a wide network of researchers who were hoping to gather ocean data from the turbines.
“We did the best we could with the program,” Klein said. “At this point, we’re drawing a line in the sand. If there are enough people who believe in this research as much as we do and provide funding, we can continue. We just can’t do it without additional support.”
Ratepayer money has not been used for the project, according to the Snohomish County PUD. Funding came from several sources including grants, in-kind contributions, and the sale of excess renewable-energy credits from the utility’s wind-power projects.
Klein said that at the very least, the project has already furthered marine science and energy research on a national level with several published scientific studies. Brian Polagye, a mechanical-engineering assistant professor at the University of Washington, was part of that research.
“This was going to be one of the best opportunities to study interactions between the turbines and the environment, a chance to finally answer some difficult questions,” said Polagye, who is also co-director of the UW’s Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center. “But this is not the end of marine-energy study. What we’ve learned about how to characterize sites for this is now being applied nationally.”
Tidal-energy projects exist in Maine and New York, but neither is as large as the Snohomish County utility’s proposed project, and no such project exists on the West Coast yet. A wave-energy project began recently in Oregon, but that technology gathers energy from surface waves and pressure fluctuations, while tidal energy captures the kinetic motion of ocean tides.
The 441-ton turbines for Snohomish County PUD’s research would have been manufactured by OpenHydro in Dublin, Ireland, then secured in place by gravity without pilings, according to PUD spokesman Neil Neroutsos. They would have stayed in place for three to five years.
Material from Seattle Times archives was included. Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or firstname.lastname@example.org.