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The Race for an alternative energy source

By Judy Benson

Publication: The Day

Published 03/31/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 03/31/2013 12:28 AM
Company would tap local currents with tidal energy turbines

Four trips a day ferrying workmen and other passengers between Noank and Fishers Island aboard his charter boat "Popeye" has earned George Peabody the distinction of being one of the region's experts on The Race, the bottleneck channel at the eastern end of Long Island Sound.

"It does have a tendency to get treacherous," Peabody said as he turned his 42-foot vessel away from the docks at Spicer's Marina for the 20-minute trip to the spot between Race Point at the southwestern tip of Fishers Island and Valiant Rock off the east end of Long Island. "In the summer, there are a lot of boats in there. The currents are so strong it holds the lobster buoys down, so the lobstermen have to go out on slack tide."

Sculpted from boulder piles left by retreating glaciers some 19,000 years ago, The Race funnels millions of gallons of seawater between the Atlantic Ocean and the Sound with the daily tides, like a narrow doorway ushering the contents of a crowded room in and out very quickly.

Because of the strong tidal force - ranging from about 4.4 to 6.7 mph - The Race is among three dozen locations nationwide cited in a 2011 Georgia Tech-U.S. Department of Energy report as having the potential to generate more than 100 megawatts of power from underwater turbines.

Since 2009, Roger Bason and his company, Natural Currents Energy of New Paltz, N.Y., have eyed The Race as a possible site for a network of tidal energy turbines that would convert the power of moving water into electricity. His early interest in the The Race didn't materialize, but now, thanks to financial incentives New York state began offering in 2012 for renewable energy projects, Bason and his company are back.

"This is one of our priority sites," said Bason, whose company was chosen by the Department of Energy and New York City to build a wind-tidal-solar energy "theme park" on Wards Island off Manhattan, and also is looking to develop tidal energy sites in Alaska. "The technology is ready. There's enormous potential for a world-class tidal site" in The Race.

New York funding critical

In December, Bason obtained a preliminary permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for The Race. An application for a New York renewable energy grant is pending.

The FERC permit enables him to conduct detailed studies of the composition of the sea floor, current speeds of the tidal surges, and the existing marine life to help pinpoint the best location for turbines. He is also making contact with nearby municipalities, commercial and recreational fishermen, and boaters and agencies ranging from the Fish & Wildlife Service to the Coast Guard. Support from all would be key for his project eventually to win the approvals needed to build.

The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has weighed in, notifying FERC that although the project would be in New York waters, Connecticut has an interest because of its close proximity and possible impacts on wildlife, water quality and boaters.

With the three-year license, Bason has the exclusive right to do the studies and preparation work - all of which require a substantial investment without a guarantee of return - without worry about a rival company swooping in. According to his FERC application, about $650,000 would be spent on the various studies and tests on the site, with the goal of ultimately installing 50 of Natural Currents' Sea Dragon turbines to generate 5 megawatts of electricity. That's far less than the total capacity of The Race if it were to be fully developed, but still enough to power about 4,000 homes. The cost of installing the 50 turbines is estimated at $24 million.

"Due to the economics of renewable energy in New York state, it is necessary to have additional support to make a tidal energy project workable from an investment point of view," Bason said. "The (New York) governor's Energy Highway program provides a possible approach to provide that support."

A component new to his project since the earlier version would be the creation of "living reefs" in areas offshore of Fishers Island and Long Island that would buffer coastal communities from tidal surges such as those seen in Superstorm Sandy. These underwater structures would serve as habitat for mussel and oyster colonies. By pairing the underwater turbines with the reef structures, Bason said, he would not only be producing energy free of greenhouse gas emissions, but he also would be improving the biodiversity of the surrounding environment and protecting shoreline.

Local impact

Bason introduced his plan to a community group at a meeting on Fishers Island a few months ago, and also to the Fishers Island Utility Co., utility President Robert Wall said.

The utility currently receives its power from Groton Utilities via a 1.2-mile undersea cable. Since customers pay the third-highest rates in the country, Wall said, projects that could reduce costs are always of interest.

"I hope it comes around, but it's a long way down the road," he said.

Some discussions took place between Bason and Groton Utilities a few years ago, but none since the new permit was issued in December, said Paul Yatco, director of utilities at Groton Utilities. Bason's plan calls for tying his turbines into the existing cable, sending the power produced to Fishers Island and selling the excess to the utility, meaning some of the power generated by the turbines would come to Connecticut.

The project's potential impact on southeastern Connecticut extends further, owing to the prospective location of the turbines between Race Point on Fishers Island and Race Rock, a lighthouse that the New London Maritime Society is hoping to acquire from the federal government. Susan Tamulevich, director of the Maritime Society, said that if her group is awarded the lighthouse, it may be willing to provide a platform on Race Rock for Natural Currents to monitor the turbines. At her request, Bason wrote a letter to the government agency choosing the lighthouse's future owner, describing a possible cooperative arrangement between Natural Currents and the Maritime Society.

"We see it as a possible source of revenue to help us rehabilitate the lighthouse," she said. "If it turns out there is no environmental damage (from the turbines), we would be agreeable to working together in whatever mutually beneficial capacity."

In a letter to FERC, the Long Island-based Shinnecock Indian Nation raised several objections to Natural Currents' preliminary permit application, and said it may seek a competing license for a tidal energy project in The Race. The 1,000-member group Concerned Citizens of Montauk also submitted a letter to FERC opposing the placement of tidal turbines in The Race, citing concerns about possible harm to important fishing grounds and disruption of submarine traffic to and from the Naval Submarine Base in Groton.

The group also characterized the turbines, which can resemble airplane propellers or old-fashioned lawn mowers, depending on the design, as devices that would shred passing fish like a "Cuisinart of the sea." Developers of tidal projects off Roosevelt Island in New York City and in Maine, however, say their in-water experience with turbines shows that's not the case.

"The small fish swim through them, and the large fish avoid them," said Christopher Sauer, president and chief executive officer of Ocean Renewable Power Co., which began generating power in September for Bangor Hydro Electric from a turbine in Cobscook Bay, and plans to install two more. "We've had a long-standing partnership for fish studies with the University of Maine, and there has never been a single fish impact."

j.benson@theday.com

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