Two Tidal Projects Gain Speed in Energy Development Race

By IAN FEIN

While the proposed Nantucket Sound wind farm continues to grab headlines and attract political attention, two underwater tidal energy projects that flank either side of the Vineyard are quietly progressing.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) within the last few weeks granted a preliminary permit for an underwater hydroelectric project off the north shore of the Island in Vineyard Sound, and also formally accepted a new application for a tidal energy project in Muskeget Channel between Chappaquiddick and Nantucket.

The two projects, which are still in the early stages of exploration, are proposed by separate private development companies. Little detail is available for either project at this time, and both developers admit they are still not sure whether their proposals will prove economically feasible.

But with a growing public concern about climate change and rising electric demand in New England, the waters off the Vineyard have emerged as a prime site in the gold rush for emerging renewable energy technologies. If they are built, the tidal energy proposals and the Cape Wind project would offset production from the oil and natural gas-fired power plant in Sandwich, which currently supplies nearly all of the electricity consumed on the Cape and Islands.

"We want to help solve this global vexing problem," said Roger Bason, president of Natural Currents Energy Services, which proposed the Muskeget Channel project and is also pursuing a similar tidal energy project in the Cape Cod Canal. "This is the historic beginning of a new era of potentially very effective sustainable development, and we're working through the details, policy and protocols with all the agencies involved."

Nationwide, and particularly in Massachusetts, the regulatory path for tidal energy projects remain somewhat unclear.

By federal statute, FERC regulates hydropower projects that are in navigable waters, which traditionally covered dams in rivers. But the agency in 2006 received a flood of more than 40 permit applications for tidal energy projects, an emerging technology that connects underwater propellers via cable to an electric grid.

Unsure how to deal with the new technology and anticipating further exploration, FERC froze many of the permit applications while it put together an interim policy this winter. Published in February, the policy aims to reduce regulatory barriers while subjecting proposals to strict scrutiny.

The FERC process begins with a preliminary permit, which effectively grants a developer first-in-line status to pursue, examine, and study the feasability of a project in a certain location. A license to build and operate the project comes later.

Oceana Energy Company of Washington, D.C., applied for the Vineyard Sound site as well as another ten locations along the nation's coastlines last spring. FERC granted a preliminary permit for the Vineyard Sound site on May 31, requiring that the company file six-month progress reports as it studies the site.

Natural Currents Energy Services, which is based in New York but plans to open an office in Cambridge, filed permit applications for the Cape Cod Canal and Muskeget Channel sites this spring. They have also applied for four other projects elsewhere in the country. FERC formally accepted the Muskeget Channel application on June 13, triggering a 60-day public comment period before any permit can be issued.

Despite intense competition in the offshore hydropower industry, the two companies are working cooperatively and have agreed to share studies and information, particularly for the two projects located off the Vineyard.

However, a key unanswered question for both projects is whether Massachusetts state law may actually preclude that type of development in the proposed locations. Unlike the Cape Wind proposal, which would be sited in federal waters more than three miles from shore, both tidal projects would fall entirely within water controlled by the commonwealth.

Charles Cooper, a permitting consultant for the Vineyard Sound tidal energy project, said that question needs to be straightened out before the company begins any scientific fieldwork in the Sound.

"Massachusetts presents an interesting challenge," said Mr. Cooper, who lives in Falmouth. "One of the first things we need to do now is to find out whether the state is going to be supportive of this type of renewable energy. That's really the critical path at this point."

A spokesman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs was noncommittal, and said she could not comment specifically on either project.

"In general, we'd be interested in looking at tidal energy as another form of renewable energy," said environmental affairs spokesman Lisa Capone. "But obviously, we'll have to look at each project on its merits and assess potential impacts to the site."

Cong. William Delahunt, whose legislative district encompasses the Cape and Islands, cosponsored a bill on the federal level this spring aiming to fund research and promote development of offshore hydropower. He said in a press release that he "strongly endorsed" the use of those marine technologies off the coast of New England.

But Mark Forest, chief of staff for Mr. Delahunt, expressed concern yesterday about the various projects pending in the waters off the Vineyard. Like the Cape Wind project, which the congressman opposes, Mr. Forest said the sites of these proposed projects are being driven by a private developer, instead of by local communities and appropriate permitting authorities.

"It speaks to the issues we've been raising for the last several years, which is the need for pre-designated zones where these types of projects should be located," Mr. Forest said yesterday. "We want to encourage renewable energy in our oceans, yet at the same time we must set clear standards and guidelines. These waters belong to the commonwealth of Massachusetts, and any project there should be based on the public interest - not by the private developer who gets there first with a reasonably complete application."

Mr. Bason, who said his company proposed the Muskeget Channel project in part because of Congressman Delahunt's enthusiasm for tidal energy, noted that he planned to meet with state and local officials, as well as any other interested stakeholders, in the coming weeks and months. He said the company would be proactive in explaining the details of their project at a later time.

"We have nothing to hide. We want a transparent process," Mr. Bason said. "We've very sensitive to the conflicting issues and tortured history of [Cape Wind] project, and we hope ours will be nothing like it."