July 21, 2012

Maine company leading way as tidal energy comes of age

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

EASTPORT - The tide is running out of Passamaquoddy and Cobscook bays, transforming the miles-wide ocean passages around Eastport into fast-running rivers.

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Ocean Renewable Power Co.’s unit awaits installation of turbines. Tidal technologies are inspired by wind turbines and require no dam. The devices are mounted on the sea floor, where they spin in the current, out of sight and well beneath the hulls of passing vessels.

Photo by Jeffrey Hains

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To the east of this easternmost American port, the Western Hemisphere's largest whirlpool is surging to life, creating a vortex capable of sucking a small skiff into the abyss. Here on the west side of town, the sea is fleeing Cobscook and, unwittingly, generating electricity for the Ocean Renewable Power Co.

Slung beneath a specially built barge moored near the bay's mouth, a sailboat-sized turbine spins in the 4-knot current, generating a clean, renewable and predictable flow of electricity. It's a 50-kilowatt prototype that ORPC is developing for use in rivers, a small cousin to the 60-kilowatt device it tested here last year.

On Tuesday, however, the company will unveil its first full-scale commercial unit at a ceremony here: a cylindrical module as big as a Grand Banks fishing schooner with long curved turbine foils. Sometime next month, it will carefully attach the module to a mount already awaiting it on the Cobscook sea floor a mile farther up the bay from here. The company will attach cables linking it to new transmission lines on the Lubec shore and, with the push of a button, the 180-kilowatt turbine will begin selling power to the grid, the first of a new class of damless tidal energy devices to do so anywhere in North America.

Tidal power, long in development, is finally coming of age, with a Maine company leading the way.

"What ORPC is doing in Cobscook Bay is really a very important milestone," said Paul Jacobson, an ocean energy expert at the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Electrical Power Research Institute. "With this project, these tidal power devices have finally crossed the threshold into commercial development."

There's much more to come. ORPC plans to add two more turbines to its Cobscook site in the coming year, and as many as 18 in the faster, harsher waters of Passamaquoddy Bay on the other side of Eastport by 2016.

"Maine is where it all started and where the lessons are being learned," said ORPC's president and co-founder, Chris Sauer, who calls Eastport the "Kitty Hawk" of his nascent industry. "Maine will become the intellectual center for tidal energy, with the people and knowledge base for how to do this."

The Eastport area has Maine's highest tides -- 20 feet -- because it is perched at the mouth of the vast Bay of Fundy, home to the greatest tides on the planet. It's the ultimate tidal resource, and ORPC and its foreign rivals are competing to harness its energy.

OPRC turbines are to be deployed next year across the bay in Digby County, Nova Scotia, while Canadian and European competitors are running tests in Minas Passage near the head of the bay, where swift, 50-foot tides have already torn one turbine apart.

It's perhaps fitting that the industry's commercial birth is occurring in Eastport. During the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- who summered in the area -- construction started on a massive, old-style tidal project here, one that would have dammed up Cobscook altogether, probably dooming the sardine and scallop fisheries on which the area's residents depended.

Congress ultimately axed the project for fiscal reasons, though not before a causeway had been built connecting Eastport -- previously an island -- to the mainland.

Unlike the 1930s project, today's tidal technologies are inspired by wind turbines and require no dam. The devices are simply mounted on the sea floor, where they slowly spin in the current, out of sight and well beneath the hulls of passing vessels. Tests so far suggest the turbines have no effect on marine life, which appears to have no difficulty detecting and swimming around them.

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