False Pass Forges Ahead With Tidal Power

The 40-odd residents of False Pass have waited years to find out if their turbulent seas could ever be used as a source of energy. And they may finally have an answer — and a path to renewable power.

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False Pass sits at the very edge of the Aleutian chain. The only thing separating it from mainland Alaska is a narrow strip of water with a lot of oomph behind it.

(Courtesy of Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association)
(Courtesy of Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association)

“I mean, you can just see it being on the dock. You watch it rolling by,” says city clerk Chris Emrich. “If you put your fishing line out there? It’s dragged fifty yards within a matter of minutes.”

That force prompted a team of scientists, engineers, and utility experts to kick off an investigation in 2012. Now, they’ve come up with a plan to save False Pass money and fuel by making power with a high-tech ocean turbine.

It’s kind of like harnessing wind, says lead scientist Bruce Wright. But the ocean’s more predictable.

“Also, water is a couple hundred times more dense than air,” Wright says. “So we should be able to produce an awful lot of electricity.”

Enough for five towns the size of False Pass, according to theirresearch. That didn’t come as a shock, but the exact source of that energy did.

Wright used to think a wide-ranging coastal current system was speeding past as it traveled to the Arctic. And he thought False Pass could be the first town in the country to harness that current system for power.

But when researchers dropped a meter into the water, that’s not what they saw. Instead, it was “only the best tidal current we’ve ever measured,” Wright laughs.

Tides are still pretty new, but they have been used for energy before. And that means False Pass should be able to tap into them a lot faster.

“If we get funding, it could happen in four years,” Wright says. “And if we get our permits squared away, it may be less than that.”

Besides permitting, the next step is finding the right spot to put a turbine underwater. It should be where the tides are strongest. But it can’t be too far from town, to avoid the need for expensive transmission lines.

Either way, the costs will be steep — somewhere between $5 and 7 million dollars, according to the turbine manufacturer.

Ocean Renewable Power Company has been running tests around the state, and they have their eye on False Pass. But manager Monty Worthington says they won’t install anything without running the numbers “to assure that this would be a benefit to the community.”

“Not just in the environmental sense, but in the sense of saving them money on their energy and stabilizing their energy costs,” Worthington says.

Electric rates are triple the national average in False Pass. And they can go higher, depending on the cost of diesel. Just getting that fuel can be a challenge.

Last year, the commercial supplier for False Pass shut down. The local government and city clerk Chris Emrich scrambled to fill the gap.

“So we had to convert to one of our tanks into a stove oil tank and the city’s been selling gas,” Emrich says. “Me personally? I’ll be so glad when I don’t have to deal with that too.”

As of this month, the community development quota group for the Aleutians is taking over. They built a new fuel storage facility, to go with their newly remodeled fish plant.

The Bering Pacific Seafoods factory has been expanded so it can stay open year-round.

Processing fish takes a lot of power, and having stable demand should help an expensive tidal energy system pencil out. At least, that’s the argument that Emrich and others are making as they apply for grants to keep the project moving forward.

If tidal power works in False Pass, “then the next village down, it’ll get cheaper,” Emrich says. “And as these get to be more mainstream, hopefully they’ll become very cost-effective within a few years after that.”

And hopefully, that would create a rising tide of affordable — and clean — energy around the state.