A tidal energy project could power machinery at Port MacKenzie

A pair of tugboats push a tanker against a dock
Port MacKenzie is operated by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. (Courtesy of ORPC)

A Maine-based renewable energy company with plans to build a tidal generator in Nikiski is now eyeing a second tidal site.

Ocean Renewable Power Company hopes it can harness the strong tides in the inlet to power machinery at Port MacKenzie, across Knik Arm from Anchorage.

It wouldn’t be the first time the company is using tides to create power in Alaska. It has a freshwater hydrokinetic generator in Igiugig, on the Alaska Peninsula.

But it would be the first generator in saltwater in Alaska, says ORPC Development Director Merrick Jackinsky. Jackinsky, who’s based in Anchorage, said the generator could fully power the machine that keeps the dock at Port MacKenzie from corroding into the inlet — called a cathodic protection system. He estimates the project could create 80 kW of power for that machine.

“Us potentially being able to be the power source for that could help make their dock mostly a sustainable system,” he said.

Saltwater poses its own challenges for tidal tech. But the mechanisms are generally similar to those the company already uses in the Kvichak River in Igiugig. As the tides move in and out, they’ll spin turbines, connected to an underwater generator.

Tidal technology is still years behind its solar and wind counterparts. The idea is it’s more dependable, since the tides are predictable hundreds of years in advance.

Jackinsky said ORPC looked at Port MacKenzie as a project site a while ago. But at the time, there wasn’t a lot of information about the Cook Inlet belugas in the upper inlet, which is why the company turned its focus to the site in Nikiski.

Since then, he said, there’s been more research about the belugas there and more interest in renewables from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, which owns the port.

“We saw it as a good fit going forward to explore a potential secondary use for Port MacKenzie. Because, as you may know, [it has] somewhat little economic benefits to the borough at this point in time,” Jackinsky said.

Port MacKenzie doesn’t bring in much revenue for the borough — according to a 2021 business development report, the port sees little traffic and “limited business development activities.”

Further down the inlet, ORPC is wrapping up year one of its four-year preliminary permit for the project in Nikiski, at the East Forelands.

It’s starting its environmental review of that site this summer. Jackinsky said they’ll study how any tidal tech at the Nikiski site would impact fish, and belugas, that spend time there.

“So we’re going to be working actively this summer to kind of pull together what we can, what we know about belugas to kind of inform our way forward,” Jackinsky said. “And then we’ll come up with a strategy around what we want to implement to make sure that we’re not having an impact on the beluga whale population in Cook Inlet.”

That project would be much bigger than the Port MacKenzie project. And it’ll take time before any power is harnessed.

But in three years, the company hopes to have a pilot device in the water, as a test. Recent studies show the site would likely be an ideal spot for a generator.

Then it plans to sell power to Homer Electric Association. The two companies signed a joint development agreement last year.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough approved a potential tax exemption for independent power producers, like ORPC, this week.

Independent power producers generate electricity and sell it back to utilities. With the new borough code, they’ll be allowed to apply for tax exemptions of up to 2.65 mills for up to 15 years on land they use for renewable projects. The exemption was created and passed in response to a planned 160-acre solar farm in Sterling.

Jackinsky said it remains to be seen what that exemption would do for the ORPC, since the company’s mainly dealing with water- and not land-based installations.

ORPC’s CEO is scheduled to speak at the upcoming Alaska Sustainable Energy Conference this week. That’s between Tuesday and Thursday at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage.

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