www.montereycountyweekly.com FEBRUARY 29-MARCH 6, 2024 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY 11 As the global transition toward renewable energy ramps up, scientists have been empowered to explore the facets that transition may require. One potential source of renewable energy is marine energy, which is created by moving water, whether waves, tides or currents. But environmental protections enshrined in state and federal law mean that those looking to create renewable energy projects have to think carefully about the permitting process. That can be particularly tricky in a marine environment, where data about how organisms react to a new thing might be harder to come by. But in order to prove a project’s net environmental impact, that data is critical. Enter the Triton Initiative, a project the federal Pacific Northwest National Laboratory launched in 2015 to look at technologies and methods to monitor marine energy devices. The initiative is the U.S. Department of Energy’s pointy tip of the spear—or triton, if you will— to help thread that permitting needle (or not). And sometimes that pointy tip takes the shape of a balloon, or, in the scientific lingo, a “tethered balloon system,” aka TBS. PNNL, in partnership with the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico, along with NOAA, deployed such a balloon at NOAA’s Granite Canyon site in Big Sur for two weeks, from Jan. 22 to Feb. 2, which PNNL’s Alicia Amerson says went swimmingly. The idea to use a balloon for the Triton research was Amerson’s—she’s trained as a whale biologist, and knew she wanted to get an overhead view, but not too high, of the sea. Her initial thought was to use a drone, but the short battery life was untenable—she needed to let the sensors, which detect marine and bird life seaward of the helium-filled balloon, roll for hours at a time to get a meaningful data set. The first technology that allowed humans to fly still has its advantages, it turns out. Amerson helped lead the first TBS test run in La Porte, Texas in 2022, and she and her colleagues spent months afterward not just learning from the experiment, but also looking for a new location to try next, ideally one where the balloon could see migrating whales. Amerson’s marine science contacts led her to NOAA’s Granite Canyon site, which is key, because the same gray whales that migrate off the Central Coast also pass by Oregon, where the nation’s first utility-scale marine energy test facility—PacWave South—is being constructed off the coast of Newport. Because there’s generally a precautionary approach with approving projects, Amerson says the technology being put into monitoring their impacts is further advanced than the marine energy tech—PacWave South will be the first place for marine energy projects to sea-test their technology, and projects like Triton’s TBS will ideally be in place to help monitor their impacts. Amerson says the earliest that could happen is likely 2025 or 2026. “One of the things holding [marine energy] up is the lack of test facilities to take devices to test,” she says, adding she and her colleagues are excited to get started on it. Not Hot Air A federal research initiative to facilitate marine energy projects wraps its operations in Big Sur. By David Schmalz The helium-filled balloon was deployed at NOAA’s Granite Canyon site in Big Sur for two weeks, from Jan. 22 to Feb. 2, for an overhead data collection view. NEWS They spent months learning from the experiment. CAILENE GUNN:PNNL