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Latest U.S. energy plan: Use power of oceans

The federal government is exploring ways to tap into the ocean's wind and water as alternative energy sources.

Miami Herald - 11/6/2007 12:00:00 AM
by Barbara Barrett

A year after a bitter congressional fight over offshore drilling for oil and gas, the Bush administration now wants to tap the ocean's winds, waves and currents as a source for alternative energy.

This time, though, environmental interests are likely allies, not vocal opponents.

The powerful Gulf Stream off Florida's coast is a primary target, with federal officials saying there is enough power there to supply a third of the Sunshine State's energy.

The federal government will entertain bids beginning this week for companies to put testing equipment like meteorological towers in the ocean waters to gather data on wind, wave or current energy.

The plans could mean that within a few years, towering wind turbines could start spinning off North Carolina's Outer Banks to harness the same gusts that have tossed ships out there for centuries.

U.S. Secretary of Interior Dirk Kempthorne on Monday said the 1.8 billion acres of the federal Outer Continental Shelf could become ''a new frontier'' for the nation's energy resources.

His remarks come a year after Congress argued over whether to open up much of the nation's federal waters to drilling for oil or gas. Those proposals, ultimately shot down, brought strong opposition from environmental groups and some state governments.

But now, the administration has found some common ground with environmental groups in the push for wind- and water-generated energy.

''We wouldn't give blanket approval for these things, but the bar would have to be high for us to reject it,'' said Josh Dorner, a spokesman for the Sierra Club in Washington. ``There's a lot of wind offshore. Finding ways to tap that would be excellent.''

The Department of Interior chief said most of the potential for sub-surface current energy can be found in the Gulf Stream flowing northward off Florida's East Coast. There, capturing just one-thousandth of the Gulf Stream's energy could supply a third of Florida's energy, Kempthorne said.

RESEARCH UNDER WAY

Research already is under way in Florida to use the ocean waters for energy. Florida Atlantic University, which has established an ocean energy technology center, hopes to drop a prototype turbine in the Gulf Stream by early next year to measure the feasibility and environmental effects of the project.

''We're hoping to make ocean energy a baseline power source for Florida,'' said Gabriel Alsenas, an ocean engineer at FAU.

Environmentalists said they view the emerging technology as ``very promising.''

''We're certainly more excited about Interior exploring those energy sources than the same old drill anywhere and everywhere,'' said Mark Ferrulo, director of Environment Florida.

In Key West, the recently founded Florida Keys Hydro Power Research Corp. is looking at ways to build an underwater tidal turbine farm off the coast.

The Department of Interior is farthest along in understanding how to capture wind energy, Kempthorne said.

The agency, which governs federal lands, figures 70 percent of the ocean's wind power could be found in the Mid-Atlantic states in water less than 60 meters deep.

From Delaware to North Carolina, experts think they can harness enough of the south and southwesterly prevailing winds to supply energy for 50 million homes.

The sight of rows of spinning wind turbines has become a common one in flat, blustery locales like Oklahoma and parts of California. If the Interior's plan comes to fruition, such a sight could be seen offshore as well.

''Wind is a lot steadier and stronger offshore,'' Dorner said. ``You can put some really massive turbines out there.''

Federal waters of the Outer Continental Shelf begin at three miles offshore and run to 200 nautical miles, and placement of wind turbines would depend on a variety of factors, including wind resources and environmental impacts.

National parks and historical sites would be off-limits, as would some fisheries.

It's unclear how much say individual states would have on the placement of offshore energy facilities in federal waters.

STATES' ROLE UNCLEAR

Randall Luthi, director of the U.S. Minerals Management Service, said states would be consulted, but he said the Interior Department wouldn't know until next spring, when it issues its final rule on offshore wind energy, just how states might be involved in the decisions.

''As a rule, we've been very cautious about moving against a strong state interest,'' Luthi said.

The agency issued an environmental impact statement on its alternative energy plan Monday. The report, about 1,500 pages, details potential resources and the possible environmental effects that energy facilities would have around the country.

Other parts of the country have different potential energy sources.

Wave energy is possible on the Pacific Coast, between Washington and northern California, Interior officials said Monday.

If just 15 percent of the nation's wave energy were harvested, Kempthorne said, 22 million homes could be supplied with energy.

Miami Herald staff writers Evan S. Benn in Miami and Lesley Clark in Washington as well as Raleigh News & Observer staff writer John Murawski contributed to this report.