There’s a battle brewing in the Puget Sound between a utility that wants to be the first on the U.S. West Coast to generate power from ocean currents and a Japanese telecommunications giant that says the plan threatens its billion-dollar fiber optic cable connection to the U.S.
The Public Utility District of Snohomish County, north of Seattle, is seeking Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval to temporarily install two 300-ton turbines, each about 20 feet (6 meters) in diameter, on the seabed in Puget Sound to transform tidal flows into electricity. Officials say the pilot project could help meet rising demand and a state target of getting 15 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020.
Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corp. of Tokyo opposes the plan, saying the anchors of vessels that would install and maintain the turbines could damage its cable, which was installed 12 years ago and can carry the equivalent of 23 million telephone calls concurrently across 13,000 miles (21,000 kilometers) to Japan. The company has the support of the Federal Communication Commission and the U.S. Navy.
“It would be quite a setback if it was rejected,” Matt Nocella, spokesman for the Washington-based National Hydropower Association, said in a phone interview. “If you have a company that’s put in six years of work into something and a regulator is going to reject it, other companies are going to look at it and say it’s not worth it.”
The utility in August said it was willing to agree not to use anchors, adding that it had employed a remotely operated vehicle in an “extensive survey” for the project without the use of anchors.
Given the strong currents in the area, the utility would avoid anchors and instead use vessels able to stay in place with engine power or other systems, Craig Collar, the utility’s senior manager for energy resource development, said in a telephone interview.
The Snohomish utility district, which started pursuing the plan in 2006, said it expects a FERC decision this year, and hopes to have the three-to-five year test project working in 2014. The pilot would provide enough power for a small number of homes but allow the utility to measure generating potential and the project’s effects on marine life. Celeste Miller, a FERC spokeswoman, said there is no deadline for a decision.
The utility, which is owned by its 320,000 customers, says the best outcome for the experiment calls for the turbines to be sited 558 feet and 781 feet away from the company’s cable, at a depth of about 190 feet. The sites were chosen over 17 alternatives because of water depth, distance from shipping traffic and the strength of tidal currents.
“Puget Sound is one of the larger potential tidal resources in the country,” Collar said.
NTT is asking that the turbines be placed at least 2,460 feet, or half a mile, away.
“Our issue is not with the project itself, or with alternative energy, it’s with the proposed site,” Kurt Johnson, the chief financial officer of Pacific Crossing, an NTT subsidiary, said in an interview. “It raises serious and unacceptable risks for our cable.”
The Federal Communications Commission sent a letter to FERC on Oct. 4 saying it doesn’t oppose the most recent proposal by the utility, as long as FERC determines the project “does not present material risk” to the cable.
In an earlier FERC filing, the FCC stressed the importance of the undersea cables to American public safety and security interests. About three dozen cables, “each about the size of a household garden hose,” carry more than 95 percent of the nation’s international voice, data and video, the FCC said.
In a June letter to FERC, Catherine Creese, the assistant director of the Naval Seafloor Cable Protection Office, said the unit concurred with the technical concerns initially raised by the FCC, noting that the “vast majority” of Defense Department overseas communications travels on undersea cables.’’ Creese’s office falls under the Naval Facilities Engineering Command.
NTT’s line is the only one linking Washington state with Japan. The other four trans-Pacific lines go from California or Oregon, according to Johnson.
Miller, the FERC spokeswoman, said the agency can’t comment on this specific project. However, the regulator’s staff in an April 2008 paper said so-called hydrokinetic energy has “amazing potential” and could double the amount of hydropower produced in the U.S., boosting it to 20 percent of national supply from below 10 percent.
The public utility district has secured a $10 million grant from the U.S. Energy Department to help cover costs of the project, estimated at $25 million. If FERC asks that the turbines be located further away from the cable, the utility probably would abandon the project, Collar said.
FERC, which has jurisdiction over dams and other hydropower investments, issued its first pilot license for a tidal-energy project to Verdant Power Inc. in January. The company plans to set its first turbines into New York’s East River in 2014, the first installment of a project to eventually provide power to more than 9,500 residents of Roosevelt Island, which lies between Manhattan and Queens, according to Trey Taylor, co-founder of the company.
FERC may hold off on a decision to see whether the utility and NTT reach a settlement, said Richard Heidorn Jr., an energy analyst with Bloomberg Government.
“FERC is definitely very supportive of the concept of tidal power,” Heidorn said in a phone interview. “The agency does look with favor on settlements, so if there is a way to realign the project, such that it meets the county’s plans and avoids NTT’s concerns, I’m sure FERC would like to have them settle it that way.”