Summary:

A group of federal researchers have dived into a project to explore animal magnetism, except it’s not what you might think — it looks into the potential effects of electromagnetic fields on marine wildlife, and could become a key reference for any environmental impact review.

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A group of federal researchers has dived into a project to explore animal magnetism, except it’s not what you might think. The project, headed by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington State, is looking into the potential effects of electromagnetic fields on marine wildlife, a study that can become a key reference for any environmental impact review of any ocean power project in the U.S.

The research, which will be discussed at Oceans 2010 in Seattle on Wednesday, sets out to investigate whether the electromagnetic field created by equipment to convert wave power to electricity — as well as the noise and movement of the equipment — could alter the behavior of fish and crabs, such as how they migrate, look for food and avoid predators. Animals such as sharks, salmon, sea turtles and lobsters are known to use the Earth’s magnetic fields to navigate and find sources of food. The research began this summer and is set to last two years.

Few studies have looked into the environmental impact of ocean and tidal power equipment worldwide, PNNL researchers said. Some of the limited studies have taken place outside the U.S. and focused on wildlife not commonly found in the estuaries and oceans hugging the country.

Hydrokinetic technologies, which make use of the waves, tides and currents in oceans and rivers to generate electricity, are largely in the research and development stages, so there hasn’t been a need to carry out a comprehensive environmental impact report to secure federal licenses to operate a wave or tidal energy farm.

Despite its promise to be able to provide continuous electricity — a benefit that other renewable energy sources such as solar and wind don’t offer — hydrokinetic technology development has been plagued by technical and fundraising difficulties. In 2008, the California Utilities Commission rejected a power purchase agreement from the Pacific Gas and Electric to buy electricity from a project by Finavera Renewables. The CPUC said the technology was too unproven and costly.

There’s only one active license  for a pilot project in the country now, and it authorizes the use of Mississippi River currents in Minnesota to generate power, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. FERC has issued only one other pilot license, but the licensee, Finavera Renewables Ocean Energy, surrendered it in 2009 because it wasn’t able to raise the necessary financing for the ocean wave project off Washington State. FERC has issued 143 preliminary permits (PDF), which allow developers to look at the feasibility of developing projects. Almost all the proposed ocean wave projects are located on the West Coast.

In any hydrokinetic project, a series of equipment is placed on or below the surface to harness the motions of the water, which turn a turbine generator to produce electricity. The electricity then runs along cables to reach the land.  This layout creates the magnetic fields that have captured PNNL scientists’ attention.

The researchers will recreate the magnetic fields using two especially designed coils, each of which is composed of a 200-pound copper wiring. The coils will be shaped to form two 5-ft. by 5-ft. enclosures. Tanks filled with marine wildlife will sit near the two coils, in which electricity will circulate at different strengths and periods of time.

Given PNNL’s location in the Pacific Northwest, home of many populations of salmon that are listed as endangered or threatened (PDF), the scientists have a particular interest to see how the fish behave. They also want to see how the electromagnetic fields might affect the detection ability of the Dungeness crabs’ antennules, the antennae next to their eyes that can detect odors.

The researchers will do the work initially in a lab, before deciding whether to take the experiment to the field, possibly in Puget Sound, Wash.

The project also will involve researchers from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center at Oregon State University. Oregon State will also focus on crabs, given that Oregon coast is a prime Dungeness crab fishing ground.

California’s coast is a rich fishing ground and the site of several proposed ocean wave projects. PG&E has proposed two exploratory projects: one off the coast of Humbodlt County, and another off Santa Barbara. Some of the fishermen in Humboldt County have voiced their concerns about the project’s impact on their livelihood. They want PG&E to compensate them for any loss of fishing ground or gear, which the fisherman say could get entangled with the wave energy equipment and become difficult to retrieve.

In PG&E’s pilot license application, the utility estimates that it will likely spend $50 million to cover the costs of installing infrastructures such as power transmission and monitoring equipment, but not for the gear that will convert wave energy into electricity. The annual operation and maintenance cost can run $5 million, which doesn’t include the expenses of carrying out any environmental protection measures.

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