The study could ease the way for the Snohomish County PUD to go ahead with its pilot project to create electricity from tidal currents.
Some opposition remains, however.
Pacific Crossing of Danville, Calif., owns two fiberoptic cables that run near where the turbines would be placed. The cables extend a total of more than 13,000 miles in a loop from Harbour Pointe in Mukilteo to Ajigaura and Shima, Japan, and Grover Beach, Calif.
The company plans to challenge the report's findings, said Kurt Johnson, chief financial officer for Pacific Crossing.
The company is concerned that the cables could be damaged by the placement of the 350-ton turbines or by anchors from boats in the area, he said.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's 215-page draft report concludes that the turbines pose no threat to the cables or surrounding wildlife habitat.
"From our perspective, the environmental assessment didn't contain any surprises," said Craig Collar, senior manager for energy resource development at the PUD. "We're pleased."
A final report still must be written. The public may comment on the report through Feb. 14. A final environmental assessment could be written this spring and a license for the project could follow, PUD officials said.
If the PUD gets a license this spring, it could follow through with its plan to order two turbines from OpenHydro of Ireland and get them in the water as soon as mid-2014, Collar said.
The company supplied the equipment for a pilot project in Scotland, one of only a handful of tidal power operations around the world, according to the PUD.
The project is expected to cost $20 million to $25 million. The PUD has received nearly half of that amount in a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.
The two turbines are expected to generate 1 megawatt of power during peak times and an average of 100 kilowatts, enough to power nearly 700 homes. If the system works well, the PUD will consider expanding the program, officials have said.
Each circular turbine resembles a giant fan, sitting about 65 feet high on a triangular platform with dimensions of about 100 feet by 85 feet.
In the pilot project, the turbines would be placed in a flat area 200 feet underwater about 575 and 770 feet from the fiberoptic cables.
Officials with the PUD submitted to the federal agency a list of precautions that crews would take when operating near the turbines. The most important of these, Collar said, is that boats would stay running when in the area to eliminate the need for dropping an anchor.
"That's great if things go perfectly according to plan," Johnson said. Still, a boat could run into trouble and be forced to drop an anchor, he said.
For placing the turbines, OpenHydro officials have told those at the PUD they can get them within 10 feet of their target locations, Collar said.
Johnson said there's no guarantee a winch would not fail in the placement process, throwing the turbine off its target.
Another issue, raised by the Whidbey Environmental Action Network, concerned potential impact on native plants on the island shoreline where the transmission line from the tidal turbine would hook into the grid.
The PUD has an agreement with the owner of a home on the beach at Keystone to build a shed or garage on the property, utility spokesman Neil Neroutsos said. The transmission line would run into the shed, which would house a converter, and a line would run from there to overhead power lines.
"It's an uncommon coastal community on cobble," said Steve Erickson of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network. The plan "is not really in keeping with the site."
The federal report concluded that native plants on the island would not be affected by the work.
Some state and county requirements will still have be fulfilled. The tidal power plan is part of the PUD's long-term effort to diversify its power sources. The utility currently buys 86 percent of its electricity from the Bonneville Power Administration, with most of the rest coming from a mix of small local dams and purchased wind power.
Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Federal Energy Commission's draft environmental assessment on the Snohomish County PUD's tidal power project may be found at http://tinyurl.com/3pwyu38.
Written comments will be accepted through Feb. 14. Comments may be sent to Kimberly D. Bose, Secretary, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, 888 First Street NE., Washington, DC 20426. Commenters are asked to send seven copies and attach a note with "Project No. 12711-005" to each copy.
Comments, 6,000 characters or less, may also may be sent on-line through a form at www.fer.gov/docs-filing/ecomment.asp.
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