January 31, 2023

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

Hilcorp is the latest company to consider a tidal power project in Cook Inlet, home to some of the world’s largest tides. appreciate studies The inlet holds more than a third of the total tidal energy potential in the US

“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 really serious consideration.”

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

Two companies already have provisional federal permits to begin exploration of the resource.

One is Maine’s Ocean Renewable Power Company, which hopes to install an early-stage device in Cook Inlet this year “that focuses heavily on monitoring the environmental impact related to Cook Inlet Beluga,” said ORPC development director Merrick Jackinsky. The renewable energy company plans to place this generator in the East Forelands in Nikiski and undertake a joint development with Homer Electric Agreement, which has agreed to purchase ORPC-generated electricity for its grid.

Hilcorp did not respond to a request for comment. But in a presentation last November, the company said it would begin 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 Trading Bay unit in 2024.

Loeffler said these 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 bay, which features harsh sediments and ice.

“In the early stages where you’re trying things and learning a lot, these platforms are certainly very valuable,” he said.

Then, he said, the company could expand to other larger-scale power generation sites.

Löffler said the technology still has a long way to go. Turbines aren’t mass-produced yet, and companies are taking different approaches to see what sticks. They must figure out what the cost of production is, and also answer key environmental questions, such as how the turbines will interact with salmon and endangered beluga whales.

In the longer term, however, he said tides are one of many renewable energy sources that could fill the gaps as Cook Inlet’s natural gas market becomes more uncertain. Last spring, Hilcorp said it wasn’t sure it could meet utility natural gas needs beyond the current contract cycle.

“The status quo is not an option forever,” Loeffler said.

Loeffler estimates that it will take 10 to 20 years for a company with a tidal project to gain a meaningful foothold in the Railbelt network.

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