Tidal Power: Is There Green In Going Green?

Seattle Business MonthlyApril 2007
By Roddy Scheer

Few people look at the Puget Sound’s waters and see the potential for an energy revolution.

But that is what Burt Hamner visualizes.

The founder and CEO of Seattle-based Puget Sound Tidal Power is developing underwater turbines to mine the Sound’s currents and produce energy, mostly for private residential and research applications.

The company is also leading a consortium of tidal power experts to advise officials from Tacoma and Snohomish County on producing tidal power. Hamner says he expects to sell commercially viable tidal power systems to residential customers by the end of this year.

With strong prevailing currents close to shore, he contends that Puget Sound will be used to produce energy on a commercial scale in seven to 10 years.

Three miles off the coast of the Olympic Peninsula’s Makah Bay is another unlikely site of the alternative energy revolution. Within a matter of months, Mercer Island’s AquaEnergy expects to get the green light from the federal government to install the first wave-power capture array in those very chilly Pacific waters. The company’s system of tethered floating buoys converts the vertical component of the ocean’s kinetic energy—otherwise known as the “up and down motion of the waves,” in the words of AquaEnergy co-founder, Alla Weinstein—into pressurized water flow that is fed via hose pumps through an underwater turbine driving an electrical generator. The resulting energy is then transmitted to shore by means of secure undersea cables.

Not long ago, projects like those being developed by Hamner and Weinstein would have been scoffed at as nothing more than toys on the fringes of power production. Today, they are gaining support, scrutiny and, to some degree, venture capital. With the world’s oil supply dwindling and global warming worries growing, the region’s alternative power sector is becoming big business.

In fact, the sector is already attracting takeovers. Last June, Finavera Renewables, a Scottish alternative energy conglomerate, acquired AquaEnergy and made the company’s technology the centerpiece of its plans to install similar systems in Canada, Portugal and South Africa. Company officials maintain that wave power may one day supply 10 percent of the world’s electricity needs.

Wave power isn’t the only alternative energy idea making a splash in Washington. Hydroelectric power has long made the state a center for renewable power sources. Also, the region’s liberal-tinged politics, combined with its history of innovation, makes it fertile ground for the alt energy sector. Washington voters added their support to the green energy movement by passing Initiative 937 this past November, which calls on the state’s largest utilities to derive 15 percent of the electricity they provide from renewable sources and efficiency gains by 2020.

The green energy focus has created a new gold rush—only this time it’s sun, wind, waves and even agricultural crops that are being sought. While the region’s green entrepreneurs dream big, the rest of us are left to wonder just how much of what glitters is really gold.