From roadless villages in Alaska to remote bends in the Mississippi River, developers are staking claim to thousands of miles of America's oceans and rivers to test devices that use waves and currents to produce electric power.
Their experiments are launching a new industry that has the potential to supply up to 10 percent of America's electric needs. But critics say rapid federal approval of the exclusive right to conduct these experiments amounts to a private seizure of communities' waterfronts.
"This process, especially in Oregon, feels like a new Klondike gold rush," says environmentalist Richard Charter, a longtime leader in ocean-protection efforts. "There are people filing claims, people jumping claims, and nobody looking at the big picture. The most amazing part of this power gold rush is that it seems to be happening entirely under the national radar."
Many state and federal agencies, as well as surprised local communities, argue that the permitting process under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is too rapid and prevents local input.
In Fort Bragg, Calif., Mayor Doug Hammerstrom was surprised last year to find that waters off his town had been claimed by a major utility with a preliminary permit application. The city filed legal motions to participate in the novel process.
"We fear that FERC, as a distant agency, may not consider local concerns," says Mr. Hammerstrom.
The fast-emerging technology, known as hydrokinetics, is vital to US renewable-energy efforts, supporters say.
"Hydrokinetic technologies, with their great promise and potential to harness abundant supplies of renewable power ... fit that bill," says FERC Commissioner Philip Moeller. He points to Oregon as an example of state and federal collaboration, where Gov. Theodore Kulongoski (D), as well as state and federal lawmakers, have invited researchers, entrepreneurs, and developers into state waters.
As of Feb. 4, FERC had granted 47 permits for ocean, wave, and tidal projects and another 41 were pending. FERC had issued 40 river permits and 55 more were pending.
Experts expect the process to continue to accelerate. Developers are rushing into hydrokinetics because recent innovations in wireless technology and robotics have improved communication between the devices and the shore and narrowed the price gap with wind and solar power. Although it costs an estimated 20 cents to produce a kilowatt hour with hydrokinetics – still about three times too expensive to be commercially viable, more research could lower the price, supporters say. An Idaho study for the US Department of Energy has estimated that hydrokinetics could double the output of conventional dams by using rivers, currents, and waves at some 130,000 sites in all 50 states.
Congress and the Bush administration have not weighed in directly on the process, which has received major government funding all over Europe.
Fifty miles off Vero Beach, Fla., a developer seeks a claim on 1,050 square miles of the Atlantic Ocean to try to harness the Gulf Stream. Tides are already powering hydrokinetic turbines in New York City.
Most of the permits now being sought and issued are for river projects, some of them massive and virtually unknown to local communities, On Jan. 31, for example, FERC issued a preliminary permit for a 3,100-turbine project in the Mississippi River near Cape Girardeau, Mo. On Feb. 1, it granted 15 similar permits for projects on the Mississippi, each featuring more than 1,000 generators to be sunk into the muddy water.
That move provoked criticism from Janet Sternburg, policy coordinator at the Missouri Department of Conservation. "We are very concerned with the potential adverse environmental impacts from this technology on the natural resources of the Mississippi River," she wrote in a letter to FERC, noting that the applications on file would affect more than 70 miles of the river.
FERC is mulling a plan by a Houston start-up to harness the Yukon River to deliver power to the Alaskan villages of Nulato and Galena, which are not connected by any road to the outside world, much less an electrical grid. While FERC insists it merely issues permits and does not make policy, critics portray the independent entity as more maverick than bureaucrat.
"FERC has a John Wayne self-image, in which it talks only to itself and not to the public it is supposed to serve," says Elizabeth Mitchell, a retired National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration attorney, who has taken a lead in challenging FERC's proposed hydrokinetic energy procedures. "As a result, FERC often shoots from the hip to the detriment of the resources it is meant to protect."
Some fellow federal and state regulators and experts are calling for FERC to create an entirely new permitting process.