Experiments are under way to test the effects that a proposed tidal ocean energy project would have on wildlife in Washington's Puget Sound.

By the end of this month, the Snohomish County Utility District plans to apply to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a permit to build two large water turbines 200 feet deep in Admiralty Inlet. The aim is to complete the project by the summer of 2013, but first, scientists and engineers have to discover how marine life would react to the turbines and how the turbines would cope with harsh waters.

"This is all very new," said Craig Collar, senior manager of energy resource development at the Snohomish County utility. "Nobody has a commercial tidal energy plant running of the type we're talking about today, and probably we're years away from that."

The hydropower venture was spurred by Washington residents who demanded a move away from fossil fuel electricity production. If the project is successful, it could have implications for the entire country, since the 28 coastal states use 78 percent of the nation's electricity. Andrea Copping, a senior manager of the Puget Sound project with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's Marine Sciences Laboratory, said tidal power should eventually join wind, solar and geothermal in the United States' renewable energy portfolio.

One of the main hurdles has been the repeated breaking of turbine blades in strong currents. As far as he knows, every turbine that has been tested in the water has failed, said Collar. He added: "It's just like wind in the early days. It's going to be expensive. It's not going to be very reliable. And it's going to be hard to permit."

Washington's pilot project is a $25 million endeavor, with up to $12 million coming from Snohomish County Utility and the rest from the Department of Energy. In addition to DOE, another 35 state, local and federal agencies claim jurisdiction over the project (Rob Hotakainen, Miami Herald, Aug. 9).