PORTLAND — Maine regulators on Tuesday put three utilities on the path to distribute electricity harnessed from tides at the nation’s eastern tip, a key milestone in a bid to turn the natural rise and fall of ocean levels into power.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission set terms for a contract that would be in place for 20 years. The regulators also directed the three utilities to negotiate with Ocean Renewable Power Co. to put electricity onto the grid this summer, the first long-term power purchase agreements for tidal energy in the United States.

“It’s a landmark in the commercialization of tidal energy in the U.S.,” Chris Sauer, president and CEO of the Portland-based company, told The Associated Press.

Ocean Renewable intends to install its first underwater turbine unit this summer on Cobscook Bay.

Power production will begin modestly, with the first unit producing enough electricity for 20 to 25 homes; the pilot program calls for additional units at sites off both Lubec and Eastport to bring production to 4 megawatts, enough to power up more than 1,000 homes by 2016.

All told, the company sees up to 50 megawatts of tidal power potential off Lubec and Eastport, home to one of the world’s best tidal sites, where the tide rises and falls 20 feet twice a day.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission established what’s called a contract term sheet for the project. It sets the rate to be paid for the tide-generated electricity at 21.5 cents per kilowatt hour, a subsidized rate that’s far higher than the current standard offer of about 11 to 12 cents paid by most Maine residents.

Central Maine Power, Bangor Hydro Electric Co. and Maine Public Service Co. will negotiate a contract with Ocean Renewable under the framework established by regulators.

Richard Davies, Maine’s public advocate, said there were some mixed emotions over setting a rate that’s so much higher than the current cost of electricity.

But Davies and his staff came down in support of the project because the cost of energy produced by fossil fuels will likely grow much faster than the cost of tidal energy over the course of the 20-year contract. In fact, he said, the energy could become competitive within five years.

The 21.5-cent rate, which grows 2 percent a year over the contract, makes the project feasible, Sauer said. It’ll be subsidized through a previously established state fund.

Ocean Renewable’s Maine Tidal Energy Project is one of two tidal programs to receive pilot project licenses earlier this year from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The other company, Verdant Power, is working to advance its own tidal energy system in New York City’s East River.

Verdant’s design looks like a wind turbine. Ocean Renewable uses rotating foils that lend the appearance of a reel grass mower for.San Jose Mercury News

SAN JOSE, Calif. _ Google is taking the wraps off a long-anticipated product that it views as one of its most important launches of the year, as the Internet giant continues its push to upload users to a future where their photos, spreadsheets and other data primarily live on the Internet “cloud” instead of a PC or some other device.

The launch of “Google Drive” has been a poorly kept secret in Silicon Valley, with the product name and a rough description of the online storage product widely circulated in recent weeks as Google has worked out the final bugs. Drive opened up to millions of users around the world Tuesday, allowing users to synch their files between PCs, smartphones and tablets.

But the success of Drive will ride largely on whether Google can differentiate its offering from already established fast-growing cloud market first, such as Dropbox and Box, as well as Microsoft’s SkyDrive service and big consumer media competitors like Apple’s iCloud and Amazon’s Cloud Drive.

“At the heart of it, Google is about cloud computing _ letting people live on the cloud and get things done on the cloud,” said Sundar Pichai, the Google executive who heads the company’s Chrome browser and cloud apps efforts. “We want this to be the center of your online experience.”

Existing Google Docs files, the centerpiece of Google’s existing cloud storage offering, will move to the Google Drive service once users download apps and install the new service. Google will offer users up to 5 gigabytes of storage for free, and up to 25 gigabytes for $2.49 a month, with prices for larger amounts of data lower than many competitors.

But Pichai said Drive can differentiate itself from its competitors because it will leverage unique existing Google cloud services like its Goggles service _ a image-recognition search feature that can recognize millions of well-known objects such as the Eiffel Tower or Mount Everest, as well as the faces of some well-known people. That could allow a user who, for example, had forgotten to label thousands of old vacation photos from Paris or the Grand Canyon to dig them up with a Google search.

“The beauty of Drive is that when you put files on it, we can bring the power of the Google computing infrastructure behind that,” Pichai said.

Drive will be able to search and index more than 30 types of files, including Adobe pdf files. Google is also opening up the service to independent software developers, meaning developers with ideas for specialized uses of a cloud storage and collaboration service will be able to build specialized apps. Drive also allows files to be shared and co-edited by anyone.

Still, Google has a problem. Since Apple launched the iPad two years ago, more and more people have needed to synch their data between many devices, and a growing number of people and companies have been using cloud services like Dropbox, which, according to comScore data, has seen its monthly traffic triple to 3.6 million users over the past year.

At the same time, Apple and Amazon can leverage their strength in music, books and other media to drive users to their cloud services.

“I wouldn’t completely write them off, but I definitely feel that Google is late to the game,” said Jesse Lipson, the founder and CEO of ShareFile, a cloud-based file-sharing service aimed at business users that now has more than 5 million users and which was acquired last year by Citrix.

 

View Cobscook Bay project site in a larger map