PUD officially pulls the plug on tidal-energy project

EVERETT — Snohomish County Public Utility District is closing the book on its mulitmillion-dollar experiment to draw electricity from ocean tides.

The PUD has asked federal regulators to cancel its license for the project, which the district stopped working on in September 2014.

The project “is no longer economically feasible,” the district said in its application to give up its license with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The plan had been to put two turbines on the sea floor off Whidbey Island. Tidal currents would turn the turbines, generating local, clean energy. The work never got past the developmental stage, though, and nothing was ever built. Getting that far cost nearly $8 million, took seven years, and involved working with local, state and federal agencies, the University of Washington, research labs, and others. The PUD pursued the work as part of its policy to expand renewable energy resources in and near Snohomish County.

Work seemed to be progressing when the PUD pulled the plug on the tidal energy project. Six months earlier, FERC gave it a green light to install the turbines. The district had asked contractors to bid on that work.

Behind the scenes, though, the U.S. Department of Energy and the PUD disagreed about how to split the project’s costs. The department had agreed in 2010 to pay for half the total cost. But it declined to chip in more when the pricetag ballooned from $20 million to at least $38 million in the following years.

Energy Department officials at the time said that their agency had not committed to more than $10 million.

The district couldn’t cover the rest alone, PUD officials said. By that point, about $8 million had been spent on the project, including $3.5 million from the Energy Department.

That really was the end of the project, but there was “remote hope” that some other partner would step in, said Craig Collar, the PUD’s current general manager and CEO. He oversaw the tidal energy project from 2006 to 2012.

Since then, “it became clear that potential wasn’t just small, it was zero,” he said.

If the PUD keeps the license, which expires next decade, it would have to file annual progress reports with FERC, even though no work is taking place. So, giving up the license is easier.

That process can take anywhere from two weeks to two months, according to FERC.

The district and its partners contributed a lot to tidal energy research, and they produced a huge amount of data about Puget Sound’s marine ecosystem, which they openly shared, he said.

“We came within a whisker of pulling this thing off,” but the PUD will not pursue tidal energy again, Collar said.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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