Feds should pitch in on PUD tidal project

If ever there was a time for President Obama to intervene in renewable energy, it is now.

The Snohomish County Public Utility District has been one of the most responsible, innovative leaders in this field, constantly trying to move the needle in ways that make sense for its ratepayers.

Eight years ago, Snohomish PUD set out to be one of the world’s leaders in renewable energy with a project designed to test the feasibility of tidal energy — with two 414-ton turbines — to power 100 homes on Whidbey Island. This would be one of the few tidal energy projects in the world. Originally, it was estimated to cost $20 million. The utility and the federal government agreed to share the cost.

In eight years of development, the PUD has accomplished at least one huge milestone: getting a permit from the federal government. “SnoPUD was able to successfully navigate both state and federal permitting processes to become one of the few projects to acquire a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission pilot license,” the U.S. Department of Energy’s Wind and Water Power Technologies Office admitted.

Eight years — for a permit.

The costs have ballooned to $38 million and the federal government has reneged on its pledge. And why have the costs grown so much?

Most of it can be attributed to requirements imposed by FERC and the federal government:

  • A list of environmental monitoring requirements that added $4.5 million to the original forecast.
  • Eight years of legal costs to acquire the permit.
  • An additional $2 million to $3 million to build a new barge to satisfy the requirements of the federal Jones Act, which requires commerce between American ports to be carried on U.S. ships.
  • More costs to defend a legal challenge.

“We spent eight years on this project,” Snohomish PUD General Manager Steve Klein said. Now, “the U.S. government refuses to step up and support an equitable sharing plan (splitting costs 50/50), even though it was the U.S. government’s process and requirements that dragged this out and are the primary reasons for the costs going up.”

It is important to remember that this was a pilot project. It was designed to create a working generator on a small scale to help evaluate the feasibility of this cutting edge technology.

Tom Ranken is the president and chief executive of the CleanTech Alliance, a trade association based in Washington state. The Snohomish PUD is a memeber of the organization’s executive board.

Clarification: In an earlier version of the guest commentary above, the Herald should have noted that the Snohomish Public Utility District is an executive board member of CleanTech Alliance, the trade group headed by the author of the commentary, Tom Ranken.

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