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Researchers Study Potential Impact Of Tidal Power Turbines

The Northwest is home to powerful tides. In Puget Sound, water rushes in and out of the Strait of Juan de Fuca at speeds of almost 10 miles per hour. And that, say some researchers, makes it the perfect place to gather energy.

Ashley Ahearn / KUOW

Down on a dock near the University of Washington a group of scientists are making the final adjustments on a stainless steel contraption about the size of a large dining room table.

Jim Thomson is an oceanographer with the Applied Physics Lab at the University of Washington. And this is AMOS 1 – or Autonomous Marine Observation System.

Jim Thomson: “This is the multibeam sonar so that’s exactly what it sounds like. It has many beams and it’s a sonar that is used to make an image of things that are in the water column so really, to look for fish.”

Ashley Ahearn : “So it’s a glorified fish finder?”

Jim Thomson: “Yes, well-calibrated, one of a kind. It’s a very glorified fish finder.”

AMOS is a sort of scout. He’ll be used to look for fish and other marine life in Admiralty Inlet, the proposed site of the first tidal power turbines in the Pacific Northwest. Thomson and his team are trying to understand what the environmental impacts might be of placing two 45 foot high turbines about 150 feet below the surface.

AMOS 1 — Autonomous Marine Observation System

Ashley Ahearn / KUOW

Waters rushing in and out of Puget Sound will spin the turbines and generate enough power for about 750 homes.

But today is AMOS’ dress rehearsal. Thompson gives the command and a crane lowers the 2,000 pound device into the shallow waters beside the dock.

Jim Thomson: “OK, everybody ready? Coming up.”

The team will test AMOS here over night and then later this week he’ll be dropped 200 feet below the surface of Admiralty Inlet. In June the researchers will pull him up and analyze the massive amounts of data he’s collected — kind of like opening up one of those time capsules you make in elementary school.

Jim Thomson: “Except this one’s a terabyte, otherwise it’s the same thing. And this one’s made out of stainless steel. Much shinier.”

Depending on AMOS’ findings and the permitting process, the turbines could be installed in 2013.