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Hilcorp to demo tidal tech from Cook Inlet platforms

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Ground Truth Trekking
Hilcorp's offshore Spark platform in Cook Inlet.

As it warns about the future of its natural gas supply, Cook Inlet’s main energy producer is considering using its aging oil and gas platforms in the inlet as renewable energy research sites.

Hilcorp is the latest company to consider a tidal energy project in Cook Inlet, which is home to some of the largest tides in the world. Studies estimate the inlet holds more than a third of all tidal energy potential in the U.S.

“The resource is significant,” said Ben Loeffler, who works with the Alaska Center for Energy and Power in Fairbanks and co-directs the Pacific Marine Energy Center. “And it deserves a really serious consideration.”

Tidal tech is years behind its solar and wind counterparts. But energy companies are starting to experiment with deploying tidal turbines in Cook Inlet to turn the powerful tides into energy for the Railbelt.

Two companies already have federal preliminary permits to start exploring the resource.

One is Ocean Renewable Power Company, of Maine, which hopes to put an early-stage device in Cook Inlet this year "heavily focused on environmental impact monitoring regarding Cook Inlet beluga," said ORPC Development Director Merrick Jackinsky. The renewable energy company plans to place that generator in the East Forelands, in Nikiski and have a joint development with Homer Electric Agreement, which has agreed to purchase power generated by ORPC for its grid.

Hilcorp did not respond to a request for comment. But in a presentation last November, the company said it will start launching demonstration projects from its existing oil and gas platforms this year — including testing two devices from its currently offline Middle Ground Shoal unit in 2023 and a third unit from Trading Bay in 2024.

Loeffler said those platforms are good places to experiment with early deployments, at different heights in the water column. And he said it’s useful that Hilcorp has a lot of expertise and experience operating in the inlet, which has harsh sediment and ice.

“Certainly in the early stages, where you’re trying things out and doing a lot of learning, there’s a lot of value in those platforms,” he said.

Then, he said, the company could expand to other sites for larger-scale energy production.

Loeffler said the technology is still a ways off. There’s no mass production of turbines, yet, and companies are taking different approaches to see what sticks. They’ll have to figure out how much production costs, and will have to answer key environmental questions, too, like how the turbines will interface with salmon and endangered beluga whales.

But long-term, he said tidal is one of many renewable energy sources that could fill in the gaps as Cook Inlet’s natural gas market becomes more uncertain. Last spring, Hilcorp announced it wasn’t certain it could meet utilities’ natural gas needs beyond the current contract cycle.

“The status quo isn’t an option, forever,” Loeffler said.

Loeffler estimated it will be 10 to 20 years before a company can make a meaningful foothold on the Railbelt’s grid with a tidal project.

Sabine Poux is the news director at KDLL. Originally from New York, she's lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont, where she fell in love with local news. She covers all things central peninsula but is especially interested in stories related to energy and fishing. She'd love to hear your ideas at spoux@kdll.org.
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