Who Owns the Tides? Alaska's Fast-Tracked Wave Permits

Just over a century ago, the arrival of gold miners bearing shovels and mining claims stunned peaceful native residents along the Yukon River near the Alaska-Canada border. Now, an alternative energy rush is quietly sweeping the nation’s backwaters. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is handing out preliminary permits to pursue a hot new form of “hydrokinetic” energy. The permits are exclusive property-use rights, legally similar to gold mining claims.

FERC defines hydrokinetic energy as produced by ocean waves, tides, ocean currents and river flows not involving a dam. Since last February, FERC has granted 47 permits to study hydrokinetic technologies for ocean, wave and tidal projects with 41 pending, as well as 40 in-river permits (55 more are pending). Developers holding these permits automatically get preference for a FERC license, which lasts up to 50 years. FERC’s “first come, first served” system is designed to let private industry cut through red tape without input from communities.

Eagle Native Village Chief Mark Malcom was taken aback last March when FERC granted exclusive rights to study the Yukon for three years to the developer Hydro Green Energy, based in far-off Houston, Texas. “AP&T [Alaska Power & Telephone] is going to put a turbine in the river and they asked us to send a letter supporting that,” Chief Malcom says. “We did.” Three miles down the frozen Yukon, his non-Indian counterparts in the City of Eagle were equally unaware of the Hydro Green permit.

The two Eagles, with less than 200 people, were united in support for the AP&T licensing effort, which they hoped would reduce rising energy bills in the two communities, which are powered solely by diesel generators. Eagle City Clerk Linda Nelson says the local electricity rate is 44 cents per kilowatt-hour, very steep compared to the average of 10 cents in the lower 48. “We now have people who are paying hundreds of dollars per month in electrical bills, which is more than their salaries,” Malcom says.

AP&T spokesman Glen Martin says the utility still plans to test its project. The company’s river turbine would generate 100 kilowatts. If the test works, AP&T would install three turbines, providing 300 kilowatts to power both the tribe and the town.

Hydro Green’s preliminary permit envisions five arrays anchored to barges 1,000 feet apart with each array consisting of 10 100-kilowatt hydrokinetic turbine units, for a total installed capacity of five megawatts. To Martin, that scenario demonstrates that the Houston company doesn’t understand the absence of a grid in remote Alaska. Mark R. Stover, spokesman for Hydro Green, says the company isn’t prepared to comment.

Preliminary FERC permits already issued include plans to claim more than 1,000 square miles of the ocean off the East Coast of Florida, to put turbines in the Niagara River below the falls and to place tens of thousands of devices in the Mississippi River. Wave energy proposals now cover much of the Pacific Coast north of San Francisco, the Columbia River and Puget Sound. Hydro Green is proposing more than a dozen projects, which would develop hundreds of miles of the Yukon, starting with the Eagle project 1,300 miles from the Atlantic Ocean and ending with a massive tidal energy development in the ocean at the river’s mouth.

But selling all that power in remote Alaska might be a problem beyond the lack of an interconnected grid. “They would have to come to us, have to sell us the energy, have to have some community support,” says Martin.