Silent and Invisible: Marine Turbines in the Puget Sound

By Helena Bla-Latchkey (Soren)

I recently visited my mother who lives in the Discovery Bay area, just outside of Port Townsend, WA. Her front yard leads to the beach and her back yard borders on wetlands. In the morning, otters run through the property to rinse themselves in the freshwater ponds; at night, frogs sing and cry into the cold, damp air. Lichens drip off of towering pine, fir, cedar and madrona trees. Ferns, wild flowers and mosses blanket everything. The Cascade mountains glimmer like icy jewels on the horizon when the fog clears. It is a serene, primordially beautiful place, but the peace this small community usually enjoys has been disturbed by a subtle foreboding.

In 2007, the Snohomish Public Utility District received permits and 10 million dollars from the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee to begin researching the installation of marine turbines in Puget Sound. They began looking at seven different locations around the San Juan Islands, areas all known for their natural beauty and biodiversity. In 2010, SPUD honed in on two sites — Bremerton Pass and Admiralty Inlet. They recently settled on the latter as their pilot project. They plan to install two OpenHydro turbines as soon as possible.

Marine turbines sound like a good idea — a cleaner, renewable source of naturally occurring energy. This is certainly how they are portrayed by the SPUD and OpenHydro Corporation, in between assurances that environmental impact will constantly be monitored. How often have we heard this before, during the experimental phases of energy projects? What level of monitoring will these earnest promises ensure?

The truth is that marine turbines inevitably cause damage to life whenever and wherever they are placed near life. Turbines are massive wheels which are propelled by naturally occurring currents in wind or air, such as windmills. A turbine creates a vortex as it pulls these currents within its center. With these currents, modern turbines pull organisms and debris within, chopping them up and shooting them out at high speed.

The turbines proposed by SPUD are open turbines — 6 meter wide steel bands, with fins placed within. There are only a handful of open marine turbines in the world. They are considered relatively new technology and there are many unknowns. However, one known risk is that any marine mammals, fish and invertebrates in the area could be sucked in and battered within the turbines’ wall. The turbines also emit a constant stream of sonic and magnetic pollution. Because many marine animals rely on sounds and polarities in order to navigate, this white noise could disrupt and disorient them. This alone could have a grave impact on the survival of many species.

Simply installing them will involve extensive drilling directly into the sea floor. SPUD has ensured the public that this construction will be “silent and invisible” to surface dwellers. OpenHydro turbines, which will be used, are designed without toxic lubricants which can leak and cause environmental damage. Still, they will require constant maintenance in order to function properly. Salt water is corrosive. It seems difficult to hypothesize how much damage a massive hunk of metal, rapidly spinning in waters that reach 9 knots and connected to electrical transmission cables could do if it were to malfunction.

Puget Sound is home to a rich ecosystem which includes increasingly precarious species such as orca whales and salmon. The Skagit River, which feeds the Puget Sound, is one of the only places in the world where wild salmon still spawn. Salmon runs extend as far as 100 miles from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, utilizing complex and sensitive navigation in order to reach the shallow, temperate beds in which they were born. Doing this requires traveling along Earth’s magnetic fields. The Skagit River has miraculously remained hospitable despite the construction of multiple dams upstream during the 80s. Here, these fish, revered as sacred to the Tulalip, Snohomish and S’kallam tribes, breed and die as they have for thousands of years. If the Skagit River becomes inaccessible due to magnetic pollution, these salmon will have no place to spawn.

Many people who live in the Admiralty Inlet area depend directly on the environment economically. The local economy is largely driven by the Sound — from fishermen, to farmers, to the local service and tourism industries. From liberal, left-leaning Port Townsend, to more conservative Port Hadlock, there is already a seething mixture of anxiety, resentment and outrage over the proposed turbines. Some have come together to object to the turbines or demand more information. There are currently no plans for direct action as far as I could tell. People rightly fear the destruction of their livelihoods and the natural beauty that surrounds them.

Sadly, local residents do not have any choice in the matter. If SPUD gets their permits, they already have the green light. They plan to do this through their pilot project — the two small turbines at Admiralty Inlet. How can these two turbines demonstrate that more extensive installation of turbines will not cause more substantial environmental impact? The FERC has promised them up to 10 million more to continue research. Obtaining permits will simply be a matter of SPUD jumping through all the right bureaucratic hoops.

The power output the turbines will have is relatively unknown. I was told by a Port Townsend local that once all ten were installed and the project was complete, they would have a power output equivalent to a standard light bulb a year for every person in the greater Seattle area. This is the sort of vague approximation I would expect to hear. Blame for energy consumption is pushed back onto individuals and personal consumption, when industry and corporate business use far more. Energy industrialists tell us that we have demanded more energy and that development must take place in order to fulfill our supposed needs. However, if SPUD had peoples needs and desires at heart, they would listen to the people of Jefferson, Snohomish and Island Counties.

Sadly, there are few ways to obtain “clean” energy and no ideal ways to generate it at the volume it is currently used. Capitalist industry will inevitably drive itself forward until it is too late — no technology too untested or territory too sacred to spill blood on. Seductive lies do little to obscure the obvious: obtaining permits does not give them permission to destroy life and livelihoods.