Hydrokinetic Permits Abound Despite Objections

The nation’s first hydrokinetic pilot project proposal has come in an unexpected place — the Yukon River.

When the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) proposed a special expedited pilot license last summer, it recieved significant support from industry developers for the idea of a license that would allow devices to get in the ocean in as little as six months.

“I want to extend our company’s thanks for this proposal,” Kevin Bannister, Vice President for Business Development, Finavera Renewables told FERC when it proposed expedited pilot licenses in October.

“We think this is really a very good first step towards creating the kind of environment that our technologies need in order to get our devices into the water [for testing].”

FERC defines hydrokinetics as energy from flowing waters, not involving a dam. Tidal, wave, current and river energy plans have all emerged as categories in FERC’s hydrokinetic efforts and in some circles, hydrokinetics is being considered the wave of the future, even for places without waves.

An Idaho study for the U.S. Department of Energy estimated there may be 150,000 sites for wave energy development in the United States. Harnessing natural water motion energy could be a key piece of America’s future energy puzzle.

“We believe a reliable and robust electricity system will be the result of a balanced and diversified portfolio,” said Roger Bedard of the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). “Our studies show that hydrokinetics has the long-term potential of providing about 10 percent of our current U.S. electricity consumption,” Bedard said.

As of February 4, 2008, 47 permits had been issued for ocean, wave and tidal projects and 41 were pending. The process has gone on largely under the radar, with some communities expressing surprise at discovering that their waters have been claimed under preliminary permits. A FERC preliminary permit acts like a mining claim, giving the first application exclusive rights to study the area for three years. The permits also give preference to the applicant for FERC conventional hydro licenses, which typically last 30-50 years.

In 2008, the focus of hydrokinetics has shifted from the ocean to rivers, especially the Mississippi River, where tens of thousands of generating devices are proposed under preliminary permits. There have been 40 in-river permits issued and 55 more pending. Half the preliminary issuances have come in early 2008.

Proposals include harnessing the Niagara River, the channels between the Florida Keys and a plan to give a European-developed technology for harnessing currents its first U.S. test. That plan claims more than 1000 square miles of the open ocean off Florida’s Atlantic Coast to try to generate power from the flow of the Gulf Stream.

Alaska has been a hot spot for river preliminary permit proposals, with preliminary permits filed on the Yukon, Kobuk, Tanana, and Kuskok Rivers. Recently the Alaska Power & Telephone Company announced that it intends to file for a pilot license on the Yukon River that would bring power to the city of Eagle, located halfway between the Pacific Ocean and the Arctic Circle, near the Canadian border. While the preliminary permits anticipate generating plants with thousands of in-river devices, this plan is much more modest.

“During the pilot phase of the Project a single turbine with two side-by-side shrouded runners producing 100 kilowatts of electrical power operating in a river velocity of 5.3 knots while being moored to an anchor on the river bottom will be installed,” the application states. A pilot license allows a developer to hook up to the grid for a period of five years, and is restricted to small, experimental proposals. A FERC conventional license has no size restrictions. The Alaskan plans calls for a conventional FERC license at the end of the five-year pilot project period.

The issuance of large numbers of preliminary permits, however, has irked some environmental regulators.

A filing by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) challenges FERC’s standing to issue pilot licenses before applicants have complied with federal laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act

“Issuing licenses in incremental stages is inconsistent with FERC’s obligations under these and other statutes, and could confuse and frustrate license applicants. Incrementally building the conditions in a license is also antithetical to FERC’s goals of shortening the overall regulatory process and providing certainty to potential hydrokinetic licensees and clarity to the public,” the NOAA filing states.

At this point, much of the Oregon Coast has been claimed. Off Fort Bragg, and Eureka California, a competition is to be held for different experimental devices by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company.

Multiple FERC hydrokinetic permits are being issued daily for what can be thousands of devices in each river application.

On Febriary 13, 2008, FERC issued a preliminary permit to a limited partnership for study of the Mississippi River in Mississippi County, Missouri, and Alexander County, Illinois, despite objections to the process from those states. That project would consist of 4,100 proposed 20-kilowatt in-river Free Flow generating units having a total installed capacity of 82 megawatts.

“Hydrokinetic technologies, with their great promise and potential to harness abundant supplies of renewable power by using ocean waves, tides and currents and in-river flows, fit that bill. I am pleased to be a member of a Commission that has adopted a proactive approach to encourage the development of hydrokinetic technologies,” Moeller said.

Frank Hartzell is a freelance writer based in Fort Bragg, California.

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