Water on the Brain

One energy executive claims a tidal system that meets the city's electric needs could be built in over 20 years, at a cost of $1.5 billion

But there's nothing like what HydroVenturi wants to build, with turbines on land.

"HydroVenturi so far is a unique design," says Harmony. "Being a pioneer, you get arrows in the back, not the front. When you call for a bond issue of $1 billion, that's pretty pioneering."

Neil says studies of the bay's water volume and speed indicate it contains an enormous amount of kinetic energy -- enough to convert into as many as 30 gigawatts a day. (The entire nine-county Bay Area consumes about two gigawatts daily.) Given technical limitations and environmental concerns, he contends, HydroVenturi could produce one gigawatt, if enough boxes and turbines were clustered together. Theoretically, that power could be shared among Bay Area cities, but Neil says he's committed to supplying San Francisco first.

But can San Francisco unilaterally exploit the waters of the bay? Could it be required to share its electricity harvest with other Bay Area cities?

Department of the Environment spokesman Mark Westlund notes that installing a tidal energy system would require a blizzard of permits and environmental impact reports. No fewer than 17 local, state, and federal regulatory agencies, he says, have jurisdiction over various aspects of the bay.

Among them is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees construction projects on all navigable waters in the United States. Corps spokesman Doug MaKitten says HydroVenturi's boxes would require "extensive" review of their impact on water quality and endangered marine species. Such reviews and public hearings could take months, if not years, he says.

MaKitten says a project like HydroVenturi's would probably require wide agreement among government regulators, as well as congressional approval. "Anything of this magnitude would involve consensus-building," he says. "I don't know how it could unilaterally happen."

In any event, the Department of the Environment strongly supports tidal energy. Westlund says it would help meet San Francisco's goal of cutting greenhouse gases 20 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2012. And it meshes well with the city's drive to reduce its use of nonrenewable energy sources, symbolized by its program to place solar panels on 20,000 rooftops.

Neil's company is likely to face competition from other firms for the contract to build San Francisco's pilot project. But he told SF Weekly that HydroVenturi is willing to pick up the tab for it.

What happens to the whole lovely scheme if Gonzalez is defeated in the mayor's race? He's closely identified with the notion of tidal power, and he's consistently ranked only fourth in recent polls. Would his political ideas -- including tidal energy -- be discredited in the eyes of voters if he loses? Would a tidal bond issue be doomed as a result?

Neil doesn't think so. While he appreciates Gonzalez's leadership, he believes that tidal power's future doesn't hinge on the career fortunes of any particular politician. It is simply an idea whose time has come.

"I don't think it matters who's in power," he says. "They're going to have to come to terms with the fact that we need alternative sources of energy.

"I think you'll find that any serious candidate will look at what we're doing and think he should be there as well."

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