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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : July/August 2007 : Energy

Turning the Tides
Tidal power is attracting the attention of businesses as the new renewable energy source.

by burton hamner


The search for renewable energy has people looking everywhere—even underwater. In the last five years, a new renewable energy industry has emerged as tides and waves are tapped for their inexhaustible power to supply communities along the world’s coastlines.

Ocean energy can be produced from waves, tidal currents and off-shore wind farms. Wave energy devices use a range of technologies to produce power from oscillation, such as hydraulic pumps or air pistons to drive turbines, or linear induction motors. In-stream tidal and river energy devices are dominated by a variety of turbine designs. Off-shore wind utilizes large wind turbines on floating or seabed installations.

Tidal currents are attractive to energy utilities because of their predictability. Unlike using wind and solar power for energy, the tides are always on schedule, and just two weeks of current data at a site can predict the currents 24 hours a day for the next 30 years. Many good tidal power sites also have different channels, so if one channel has a slow current, energy could be harnessed from a channel with a stronger current as the tide changes, allowing the energy to be leveled out over a region to provide steady, predictable power.

Throughout the world, countries are exploring ocean energy. In 2001, the International Energy Agency established the Implementing Agreement on Ocean Energy Systems to provide a framework for collaboration between countries. The Parliament in the United Kingdom has strongly endorsed ocean energy and provided significant funding for pilot projects. The Scottish Executive and other partners allotted £14.5 million to create the European Marine Energy Centre in the Orkney Islands of northern Scotland to allow wave and tidal technology developers to test and validate their systems. An Irish company using U.S.-developed technology, Open Hydro Ltd., recently demonstrated its tidal turbine at the centre, earning the company a $12 million contract from Nova Scotia Power to demonstrate it in the Bay of Fundy.

The U.S. is also actively involved in exploring these new sources of energy. In 2004, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) initiated a nationwide survey of ocean energy resources that developed standard models for wave and tidal technologies, economic analysis, site evaluation and studies in dozens of locations. EPRI’s work catalyzed new projects around the country. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has received more than 50 applications concentrated in the Pacific Northwest, where there are strong waves, tides and wind, to develop commercial ocean energy projects.

The most advanced tidal project in the U.S. to date is the Verdant Power Company’s efforts in the East River of New York City. Verdant installed six windmill-type turbines for a demonstration project, but the company hopes to build several hundred more units to provide a significant source of power to New York City. Another ambitious tidal project of eight tidal turbine “farms,” with the potential to construct a thousand more, has been proposed in the Puget Sound of Washington State.

Burton Hamner is the president of Puget Sound Tidal Power LLC in Seattle.

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