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New wave seen in energy production

Imagine a bank of solar panels stretching over three square miles of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, generating 300 megawatts of power, enough for every household in the city of Spokane.

Imagine heading out to sea and seeing a floating field of red buoys about the size of a small fleet of fishing boats. The buoys would indicate generation turbines being spun by the motion of the waves, producing power that would be sent ashore via undersea transmission lines.

And imagine — this one’s not that hard — fields filled with spinning wind turbines, just west of Spokane, in Reardan. A wind farm planned for that area has a projected capacity of 50 megawatts, enough to power more than 30,000 homes.

These are among the emerging energy technologies promoted at the annual meeting of the Washington Public Utility Districts Association, held this week in Spokane. Some 220 members of utility districts across the state attended the three-day meeting to hear the latest developments on a variety of energy topics.

“It’s pretty exciting stuff,” said Mike Nelson, director of Northwest Solar Center, of new solar technology that he says makes the renewable energy source more affordable. Northwest Solar Center, a project of Washington State University, has a membership that including northwest utilities, nonprofit organizations and local governments.

Nelson said Germany and Japan far outpace the United States in use of solar panels to generate power. Nelson would like to see that change. The “modest” proposal he ended his presentation with called for a 38-kilowatt solar installation at Hanford to grow into a 300-megawatt installation over the next eight years.

Legislation passed this year could help. One new law grants homes and businesses with solar and wind power systems a credit of 15 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated, up to $2,000 annually, according to Northwest Solar Center’s Web site. Nelson said the legislation imitates a successful concept already being used by homes and businesses in Germany.

“The Germans have the most successful solar program in the world,” Nelson said. “They’re driving the market worldwide.”

It’s also a worldwide market Kenneth Kukes’ company is seeking to enter with its wave-powered generation systems. AquaEnergy Group, based on Mercer Island, is marketing internationally its technology to produce power using the motion of ocean waves. The company is preparing to construct and deploy a one-megawatt plant in the summer of 2007. The location depends on who wants to foot the bill. The company’s primary investor is Irish.

“We will have a demo in the water and it’s wherever we get the money,” said Kukes, who is the company’s executive vice president.

The technology works like this, according to the company Web site: When the waves move up and down, seawater is forced into a hose pump beneath a buoy floating on the water. The pump pushes the water into a turbine installed inside the buoy. The turbine spins, producing power which is then sent onshore via underwater power lines.

“As long as the waves roll, we produce electricity,” Kukes said. Though the technology today costs about 23 cents per kilowatt-hour to produce power, Kukes said the potential exists to bring costs down into the 10-cent range. For comparison, Avista Utilities charges five to six cents per kilowatt-hour. Kukes said his 5-year-old company is about 20 years behind wind power in terms of being market ready.

Speaking of wind power, Dave Kobus of Energy Northwest said his company’s goal is to produce 300 megawatts of wind power by 2009. Energy Northwest already developed the 64-megawatt Nine Canyon wind project in Kennewick and is planning a 32-megawatt expansion there. The company also hopes to develop a 50-megawatt wind farm south of Reardan.

“We’re still prospecting and monitoring wind resources at several other potential Washington and Oregon sites,” said Kobus, who is project manager for energy services. However, he said, rapidly growing interest in wind power has created increased competition for good sites.