Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Free Flow System turbine being installed in East River. (PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER R. GRAY/VERDANT POWER, INC.)

Want Blue Energy? Then Trade Risk for Information

• December 06, 2013 • 5:11 PM

Free Flow System turbine being installed in East River. (PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER R. GRAY/VERDANT POWER, INC.)

There are a lot of unknowns about the ecological effects of ocean-based renewable energy. A screwy permitting process, a new analysis argues, makes answering those questions that much harder.

Renewable energy isn’t always as “green” as we’d like. Wind turbines kill birds and bats, solar projects can cover up pristine habitat, and some biofuels ultimately are more greenhouse gassy than the fossil fuels they’re meant to replace. Circling at the edges are critics—some sincere, some likely shills for established conventional power sources—ready to damn these technologies.

Perhaps chastened by these experiences, U.S. regulators have tried to get a jump on making sure that oceanic renewable power is as, umm, “blue” as possible.

Those concerns are already front and center in efforts to develop the nascent industry that uses waves, currents, tidal flows, and even temperature differences in the ocean to generate electricity. But here, according to a new analysis in The Electricity Journal, blind adherence to the precautionary principle is hindering the promise of marine hydrokinetic energy, or MHK.

“Perhaps the hardest policy lesson that has come out of the American wind effort has been the repeated crippling effect on the industry from discontinuity in government support.”

The authors, led by Lindsay Dubbs with the Renewable Ocean Energy Program at the University of North Carolina’s Coastal Studies Institute, argue that existing ways of permitting these projects are not helping developers flesh out ideas because of fears of damage to marine species. U.S. regulators, even during Republican regimes, have been urging caution about jumping into new clean technologies without knowing all the downsides. (That perhaps they haven’t been as concerned about impacts from conventional power generation is, well, one of life’s mysteries.) In a 2010 special issue of the journal Oceanography on marine renewable energy, six of 11 articles on the subject examined regulatory perspectives.

The rules covering MHK, borrowed from existing rules for offshore oil and gas extraction (insert sarcastic comment here), don’t account for the potential environmental benefits of a new technology that doesn’t pollute or generate greenhouse gases, Dubbs’ team writes. The regulations also miss an important, if unpalatable, point—it is sometimes worth trading risk for information.

“This does not mean that any environmental risk is acceptable if MHK can produce clean energy,” the authors say, “but it is meant to argue that policy should take into account that there are potential environmental as well as financial benefits in getting innovative MHK projects permitted and implemented.”

All told, according to the Department of Energy’s Wind and Water Power Technologies Office, MHK theoretically could produce a little more than half the 4,000 terawatt hours per year of electricity currently consumed by the U.S. While not suggesting that’s actually going to happen, the feds insist “the nation’s enormous MHK energy potential still represents major opportunities for new water power development.” The first permitted commercial project in the U.S.—Verdant Power’s Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy project in New York’s East River—was only given a green light in January 2012.

DoE funded 67 MHK projects between 2008 and 2012, with more than half the almost $100 million allocated going to projects on the Pacific coast. The experiments range from studies of “smart buoys” to learn about wave conditions to development of an “underwater windmill” to modeling of ocean currents. (Offshore wind and inland hydropower, while clearly renewable, are not considered marine hydrokinetic sources.) That’s a relatively small amount spread across so many projects, which backs up Dubbs’ concerns that, “The financial costs of permitting are much more of a disincentive for small MHK projects than they would be for a larger-scale wind or fossil fuel project.”

None of this suggests that MHK is without sin. But by not going forward, there’s no way to know whether these will be venal or mortal. Dubbs and company identified a few possible vectors for harm: physical injury, say a fish or a seal gets smacked by a blade or sucked into a vortex; behavioral disruptions that could be triggered by machinery’s light, sounds, or electromagnetic fields; chemical emissions, such as lubricants or paint; or just being in the way of shipping.

There’s been little evidence of problems so far, but then there’s been little deployment and so even less monitoring. There are places where a collision of interests have been identified—the migrating shad in Canada’s Bay of Fundy come to mind—and in those cases projects can be redesigned or take a back seat.  And some of these potential problems, in particular the disruptions to behavior caused by collateral aspects of the projects, could be particularly difficult to identify and nail down in the wild—just as “wind turbine syndrome” has proved nettlesome on land. “The tidal power industry and regulators have identified poorly understood environmental effects as one of three top barriers to getting tidal devices in the water,” according to a 2011 memo from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It’s not always smooth sailing for MHK, even when other concerns have been allayed. The peculiar species known as surfers, for example, were energized by proposals to tap the tidal surge of England’s Severn Bore, which would have dampened their fun. Support for the idea is ebbing, driven by additional concerns about its economic feasibility and environmental impact. The good news for MHK backers is that the proposal did lead to a spate of research into ecological issues

Meanwhile, regulation isn’t the only government impediment to the sector. As wind-power guru Jim Dehlsen—his company is behind the underwater windmill—told us in 2010, intermittent federal support is death to entrepreneurs. “Perhaps the hardest policy lesson that has come out of the American wind effort has been the repeated crippling effect on the industry from discontinuity in government support,” he testified before Congress.

Perhaps that’s one area where past experience can yet push blue energy closer to shore.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.

September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?

September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.

September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference

September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.

September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.

September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.

September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.

September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.

September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.

September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.

September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments

September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.

September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.

September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?

September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.

September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.

September 25 • 4:00 PM

Forging a New Path: Working to Build the Perfect Wildlife Corridor

When it comes to designing wildlife corridors, our most brilliant analytical minds are still no match for Mother Nature. But we’re getting there.

September 25 • 2:00 PM

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

Like it or not, fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.

September 25 • 12:00 PM

The Fake Birth Mothers Who Bilk Couples Out of Their Cash by Promising Future Babies

Another group that’s especially vulnerable to scams and fraud is that made up of those who are desperate to adopt a child.

September 25 • 10:03 AM

The Way We QuickType

Follow us

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

Would You Rather Go Blind or Lose Your Mind?

Americans consistently fear blindness, but how they compare it to other ailments varies across racial lines.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.