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Want Blue Energy? Then Trade Risk for Information

There are a lot of unknowns about the ecological effects of ocean-based renewable energy. A screwy permitting process, a new analysis argues, makes answering those questions that much harder.
Free Flow System turbine being installed in East River. (PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER R. GRAY/VERDANT POWER, INC.)

Free Flow System turbine being installed in East River. (PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER R. GRAY/VERDANT POWER, INC.)

Renewable energy isn’t always as “green” as we’d like. Wind turbines kill birds and bats, solar projects can cover up pristine habitat, and some biofuels ultimately are more greenhouse gassy than the fossil fuels they’re meant to replace. Circling at the edges are critics—some sincere, some likely shills for established conventional power sources—ready to damn these technologies.

Perhaps chastened by these experiences, U.S. regulators have tried to get a jump on making sure that oceanic renewable power is as, umm, “blue” as possible.

Those concerns are already front and center in efforts to develop the nascent industry that uses waves, currents, tidal flows, and even temperature differences in the ocean to generate electricity. But here, according to a new analysis in The Electricity Journal, blind adherence to the precautionary principle is hindering the promise of marine hydrokinetic energy, or MHK.

"Perhaps the hardest policy lesson that has come out of the American wind effort has been the repeated crippling effect on the industry from discontinuity in government support."

The authors, led by Lindsay Dubbs with the Renewable Ocean Energy Program at the University of North Carolina’s Coastal Studies Institute, argue that existing ways of permitting these projects are not helping developers flesh out ideas because of fears of damage to marine species. U.S. regulators, even during Republican regimes, have been urging caution about jumping into new clean technologies without knowing all the downsides. (That perhaps they haven’t been as concerned about impacts from conventional power generation is, well, one of life’s mysteries.) In a 2010 special issue of the journal Oceanography on marine renewable energy, six of 11 articles on the subject examined regulatory perspectives.

The rules covering MHK, borrowed from existing rules for offshore oil and gas extraction (insert sarcastic comment here), don’t account for the potential environmental benefits of a new technology that doesn’t pollute or generate greenhouse gases, Dubbs’ team writes. The regulations also miss an important, if unpalatable, point—it is sometimes worth trading risk for information.

“This does not mean that any environmental risk is acceptable if MHK can produce clean energy,” the authors say, “but it is meant to argue that policy should take into account that there are potential environmental as well as financial benefits in getting innovative MHK projects permitted and implemented.”

All told, according to the Department of Energy’s Wind and Water Power Technologies Office, MHK theoretically could produce a little more than half the 4,000 terawatt hours per year of electricity currently consumed by the U.S. While not suggesting that’s actually going to happen, the feds insist “the nation’s enormous MHK energy potential still represents major opportunities for new water power development.” The first permitted commercial project in the U.S.—Verdant Power's Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy project in New York's East River—was only given a green light in January 2012.

DoE funded 67 MHK projects between 2008 and 2012, with more than half the almost $100 million allocated going to projects on the Pacific coast. The experiments range from studies of “smart buoys” to learn about wave conditions to development of an “underwater windmill" to modeling of ocean currents. (Offshore wind and inland hydropower, while clearly renewable, are not considered marine hydrokinetic sources.) That’s a relatively small amount spread across so many projects, which backs up Dubbs’ concerns that, “The financial costs of permitting are much more of a disincentive for small MHK projects than they would be for a larger-scale wind or fossil fuel project.”

None of this suggests that MHK is without sin. But by not going forward, there’s no way to know whether these will be venal or mortal. Dubbs and company identified a few possible vectors for harm: physical injury, say a fish or a seal gets smacked by a blade or sucked into a vortex; behavioral disruptions that could be triggered by machinery’s light, sounds, or electromagnetic fields; chemical emissions, such as lubricants or paint; or just being in the way of shipping.

There’s been little evidence of problems so far, but then there’s been little deployment and so even less monitoring. There are places where a collision of interests have been identified—the migrating shad in Canada’s Bay of Fundy come to mind—and in those cases projects can be redesigned or take a back seat.  And some of these potential problems, in particular the disruptions to behavior caused by collateral aspects of the projects, could be particularly difficult to identify and nail down in the wild—just as "wind turbine syndrome" has proved nettlesome on land. “The tidal power industry and regulators have identified poorly understood environmental effects as one of three top barriers to getting tidal devices in the water,” according to a 2011 memo from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It’s not always smooth sailing for MHK, even when other concerns have been allayed. The peculiar species known as surfers, for example, were energized by proposals to tap the tidal surge of England’s Severn Bore, which would have dampened their fun. Support for the idea is ebbing, driven by additional concerns about its economic feasibility and environmental impact. The good news for MHK backers is that the proposal did lead to a spate of research into ecological issues

Meanwhile, regulation isn’t the only government impediment to the sector. As wind-power guru Jim Dehlsen—his company is behind the underwater windmill—told us in 2010, intermittent federal support is death to entrepreneurs. "Perhaps the hardest policy lesson that has come out of the American wind effort has been the repeated crippling effect on the industry from discontinuity in government support," he testified before Congress.

Perhaps that's one area where past experience can yet push blue energy closer to shore.