SEQUIM, Wash. -- Joshua Myers has been busy putting electrodes on the heads of juvenile salmon, trying to determine how the fish will react to the simulated sound of giant steel and fiberglass turbines, which soon could be submerged in Washington state's Puget Sound.
Myers, a research engineer, is conducting his acoustical experiments in a laboratory on Sequim Bay, where scientists want to learn how to create electricity from an unusual source: the force of powerful ocean tides and waves.
If all goes as planned, two large hydro turbines will be installed 200 feet deep in the harsh waters of Admiralty Inlet by late summer 2013, marking the first project of its kind in the state. But before then, scientists want to figure out how rockfish, diving birds, whales and other marine life will respond to the intruding turbines, which will weigh 350 tons each.
In the latest quest for clean power, Washington state has emerged as a hotbed of high-tech research into what's known as hydrokinetics.
The project is driven in part by Washington state residents' demand for a change from traditional carbon-based fuels for generating electricity. They passed an initiative in 2006 that requires large utility companies to increase the amount of electricity they generate from renewable energy sources, such as wind or solar, to 15 percent of their supply.
"We're very enthusiastic about this. ... We're trying to use ocean space in a way we've never used it before," said Andrea Copping, a senior program manager who's in charge of the project at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's marine science lab in Sequim.
Utilities are gearing up for the change.
Later this month, the Snohomish County Public Utility District will formally apply for a license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for the $25 million pilot project.
"This is all very new," said Craig Collar, the senior manager of energy resource development at the Snohomish County utility, the second largest publicly owned utility in the state. "Nobody has a commercial tidal energy plant running of the type we're talking about today, and probably we're years away from that."
The idea of getting tides and waves to produce electricity isn't a new one.
A few years back, Tacoma Power, which serves the area around Tacoma, Wash., considered placing tidal generators in the Tacoma Narrows in southern Puget South, but the proposal eventually was put on hold. Similar projects are in various stages of development in a handful of states, including New York, Maine and Alaska.
If the project succeeds, scientists say, the potential for tidal power is huge. Twenty-eight coastal states consume 78 percent of the nation's electricity, and 52 percent of the U.S. population resides in coastal counties.
In the tests Myers is conducting, the salmon are placed in a large tank and forced to listen to the simulated sound of turbines for 24 hours, after which researchers examine them for contusions or other signs of biological trauma.
The researchers said it was too soon to know how salmon or other marine life would fare in the experiment.
"We don't know what the impacts might be biologically or physically," Copping said. "We're learning, but we don't know a lot. ... If we get good data out of it, that's a real win."
Copping said researchers didn't expect tidal power to be "the magic bullet for all renewable energy" but that it eventually should join wind, solar and geothermal as part of the nation's energy portfolio.
In many ways, scientists said, the hydro turbines are similar to jet engines. A jet engine works by having air pass through it; the hydro turbine works by having water go through it, making the blades spin. Copping said inventors who were trying to capitalize on the new business already had come up with 60 or 70 designs, some that "are weird and wacky and different-looking."
So far, there's been one persistent problem: Blades routinely break when they're exposed to the strong currents.
"There hasn't been any turbine that's gone in yet, that I'm aware of, that hasn't had a pretty significant failure," Collar said. "It's just like wind in the early days. It's going to be expensive. It's not going to be very reliable. And it's going to be hard to permit."
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