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In Fort Bragg, Calif., Mayor Doug Hammerstrom was surprised last year to find that waters off his town had been claimed by a major utility with a preliminary permit application. The city filed legal motions to participate in the novel process.

"We fear that FERC, as a distant agency, may not consider local concerns," says Mr. Hammerstrom.

The fast-emerging technology, known as hydrokinetics, is vital to US renewable-energy efforts, supporters say.

"Hydrokinetic technologies, with their great promise and potential to harness abundant supplies of renewable power ... fit that bill," says FERC Commissioner Philip Moeller. He points to Oregon as an example of state and federal collaboration, where Gov. Theodore Kulongoski (D), as well as state and federal lawmakers, have invited researchers, entrepreneurs, and developers into state waters.

As of Feb. 4, FERC had granted 47 permits for ocean, wave, and tidal projects and another 41 were pending. FERC had issued 40 river permits and 55 more were pending.

Experts expect the process to continue to accelerate. Developers are rushing into hydrokinetics because recent innovations in wireless technology and robotics have improved communication between the devices and the shore and narrowed the price gap with wind and solar power. Although it costs an estimated 20 cents to produce a kilowatt hour with hydrokinetics – still about three times too expensive to be commercially viable, more research could lower the price, supporters say. An Idaho study for the US Department of Energy has estimated that hydrokinetics could double the output of conventional dams by using rivers, currents, and waves at some 130,000 sites in all 50 states.

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