A handful of companies are studying the perpetual motion of the ocean in Alaska and trying to figure out how to turn it into a commodity in high demand: energy.
In the last two months, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has granted preliminary permits for Alaska projects that could lead to full-scale underwater power systems.
In late March, FERC issued a permit to Natural Currents Energy Services, LLC of Highland, New York, to study a tidal power project off Angoon. If built, it could generate 3,000 megawatt-hours of power that would be sold to a local utility, according to the FERC application.
The federal regulator also issued preliminary permits to Alaska Tidal Energy Co. for proposed projects at Gastineau Channel, Icy Passage and the Wrangell Narrows. Alaska Tidal is a subsidiary of Oceana Energy Co., based in Washington, DC.
"The purpose of these permits is to try to figure out how much power exists, and whether there would be customers in the area for this power," said Charles Cooper, a consultant for Oceana who filed the permits.
The equipment Oceana would use to make energy is still in development but would essentially function using large underwater turbines with propellers of up to 50 feet in diameter; two generators, anchoring systems and submarine power transmission lines. The Gastineau Channel project could generate 8.76 gigawatt-hours of power annually, according to the company.
With high oil prices, concerns about shrinking fuel supplies and pressure to slow global warming, government officials across the globe are putting new efforts into tidal energy. The challenge is to create commercial operations out of interesting ideas and research.
Ocean energy as a concept has been around for at least a century. It generated a good deal of enthusiasm and investment in the 1970s when oil prices surged.
China and Europe tested equipment only to see funding disappear a decade later as the price of oil dropped and other forms of renewable energy drew investment.
A year ago there were no Alaska tidal or ocean power applications for permits filed with FERC. Today there are at least eight, observes David Lockard, ocean energy program manager with Alaska Energy Authority, a state agency. He sid the state's first tidal energy conference, held in Ketchikan in January, demonstrated the growing interest in the energy source.
Government officials, power company executives and entrepreneurs attended the conference.
"Alaska has the highest energy prices in the country. We also have more ocean energy resources than anywhere else in the country. It just makes sense," Lockard said.
The government official believes a project proposed for the Knik Arm Narrows is closer to development than others being studied in the state.
Ocean Renewable Power Company, LLC, Miami, is working on developing a tidal energy project in the Narrows starting with a 20-foot miniature tidal generator prototype suspended from a barge.
The test could begin next spring and be followed by a yearlong pilot using larger equipment beginning in 2009. By 2012 an underwater energy system running on tide power turbines could crank out 8.76 gigawatt hours per year.
The company said it is seeking another $1 million to begin work.
With all ocean power projects there are environmental and navigational concerns. During the public comment period prior to the FERC permit being issued for the Knik Arm Narrows project the U.S. Department of Interior raised concerns about the endeavor's potential impact on sea life.
Chris Rose is executive director of Renewable Energy Alaska Project, an Anchorage non-profit coalition focusing on boosting renewable energy use across the state.
He said despite the promise of ocean and tidal power, the state has been slow to spend money on it. A bill now working its way through the state legislature would create a renewable energy fund. Separate legislation would be required to put money into the fund.
In March the U.S. Senate approved a $125 million amendment proposed by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski to next year's budget.
If it becomes part of the final budget, the money would go toward renewable energy and $50 million is aimed at ocean energy research.
Explaining the amendment on the senate floor, Murkowski said congress and the federal government need to add to resources for renewable energy.
"Ocean power holds great potential for Alaska, as well as for much of the Lower 48 coastline," she said.
Murkowski said rural villages on the Last Frontier would be major beneficiaries of cheap energy from changes in currents, tides and waves. She said electricity can cost 80 cents per kilowatt-hour when it is generated by diesel fuel.
Renewable energy sources could decrease that, she said.