1. Introduction

“Hydrokinetic Energy Projects” (hereafter labeled “hydrokinetics”) refers to a class of devices that generate electricity from waves, tides, and ocean or river currents.[1]  Interest in these technologies has grown in recent years; at the end of 2010, there were more than 160 projects on file at Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the primary federal agency with jurisdiction over hydrokinetic projects. 

These emerging technologies may become an important energy source, but like any energy technology they may affect other public resources such as fisheries, wildlife, and recreation.  Few technologies have been tested in a marine or river environment in this country, although several prototypes have been developed in Europe and Australia.  At the end of 2010, there was only one licensed hydrokinetic project in the United States (through an amendment to an existing conventional hydropower project) and there had been limited in-water testing (and no larger-scale projects).  However, a regularly updated summary of projects showed FERC issued preliminary permits for 143 projects (17 tidal, 10 wave, and 116 in rivers) and 22 preliminary permits were pending (13 tidal, 1 wave, and 8 inland rivers); two license applications are pending (1 tidal, 1 wave); and another project had tested devices without a license (because it did not transmit power into the national energy grid).  Most of these projects are being developed under FERC’s “pilot license” option, a much shorter than normal license term to allow developers to test equipment on-site and study potential impacts.  Pilot projects also allow stakeholders to help identify potential environmental impacts and request reasonable studies that will help developers determine the scope of project impacts. 

The Department of Energy (DOE) recently completed a review of potential biological and physical impacts from hydrokinetic projects (DOE 2009b) as directed by Congress in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA).  However, that report does not address potential recreation impacts.  To help fill that information need, this paper reviews potential impacts[2] to recreation and suggests ways those impacts can be studied, minimized, or mitigated.  Potential recreation impacts may include:

  • Recreation access exclusions or activity restrictions for safety or security reasons.
  • Aesthetic impacts, including visual and aural impacts from the devices or the cables, power-substations, lights, moorings, or barges associated with them. 
  • Impacts on “hydrodynamics,” including waves or hydraulics in river, tidal, or ocean currents that affect surfing, kayaking, fishing or other activities.
  • Wreckage/salvage impacts that create boating hazards, damage habitat, or change aesthetics.    
  • Changes to fish or wildlife populations, behaviors, or habitat that in turn affect fishing and wildlife viewing opportunities.    
  • Potential for hydrokinetic development to become an “attractive nuisance” that encourages recreation use in hazardous areas.


The National Park Service (NPS, which has consulting responsibilities concerning recreation issues in FERC hydropower licensing proceedings, and the Hydropower Reform Coalition (HRC, which includes organizations with an interest in water-based recreation) collaborated to review the potential impacts of hydrokinetic projects on recreation in a 2008 workshop in Seattle.  From that session, participants recognized the need to develop a document that would help FERC, agencies, stakeholders, and project developers understand and address the issues.  Similar guides have been developed to help assess recreation impacts from traditional hydropower projects (Whittaker et al., 1993; Whittaker et al., 2007), but hydrokinetic projects are likely to be developed in different environments and have different impacts.  This document applies recreation management concepts and study options to the distinct issues presented by hydrokinetic development. 

[1] Several labels have or could be used to identify these technologies (or categories of technologies), including “wave energy technologies,” “current energy technologies,” “marine and hydrokinetic technologies,” or “marine and river hydrokinetic technologies” (each with separate acronyms).  We encourage use of the general term “hydrokinetics” to cover the full range, all of which involve some method of generating energy from the movement of water.  Ocean Thermal Energy Technology (OTEC) is a related technology that is sometimes included in this group.  However, this report does not explicitly cover recreation impacts from OTEC because that technology falls under a different regulatory framework (even as many principles discussed are applicable).    

[2] “Impacts” may refer to positive or negative impacts.