July 21, 2012

Maine company leading way as tidal energy comes of age

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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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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"This technology we are pursuing doesn't involve the construction of actual barrages or dams, so it's much more environmentally sensitive," said Steven Chalk, U.S. assistant deputy secretary of energy, whose department awarded a $10 million grant to ORPC in 2010. "This technology is less mature than wind or solar, but tides are very predictable, so we know what kind of power we'll get at a certain time of day and day of the year. That's an important advantage."

Five years ago, ORPC was a fledgling startup operating out of an incubator office at the University of Southern Maine's Center for Enterprise Development, its staff applying for grants and investors to build and test its first prototypes off Eastport. Now it's hopped ahead of its competitors in North America, including older and larger European companies like Dublin-based OpenHydro and the Siemens-controlled U.K. powerhouse Marine Current Turbines, which has been feeding Northern Ireland's grid from a huge 1.2-megawatt tidal turbine at Strangford Lough since 2008.

In late 2009, OpenHydro deployed a three-story, 1-megawatt device at the Nova Scotian government's test site in the Minas Passage, where the tidal current runs at a staggering 12 knots. But the device -- which resembled the front of a jet engine fan -- had to be pulled up just a few weeks later after its communications devices and many of its fan blades were torn off by the current.

Earlier this year, the company's Canadian partner, Emera, announced it was abandoning further testing and giving up its berth at the test site.

"We had great learnings coming out of the Minas Basin Project, and one of the learnings was that the tides are much stronger than anyone anticipated," said Sasha Irving, a spokesperson at Emera, which is the parent company of Bangor Hydro and Nova Scotia Power. "There needs to be another way to test this technology that is faster and doesn't require full deployments and recoveries."

Irving Oil, part of the family-owned conglomerate that dominates the economic and political life of New Brunswick, abandoned a $600,000 tidal energy site survey of the Canadian side of Passamaquoddy Bay two years ago due to "policy concerns" and "uncertainty around the true viability of tidal technologies." (The company didn't respond to interview requests.)

These developments helped ORPC -- which has taken a phased "walk before you run" approach -- to win the North American race to commercialization, a big advantage in efforts to scale up and spread.

"There are very few technology providers internationally that have installed machines and have had them running for a significant amount of time, and ORPC is leading in that charge," said Dana Morin, president of Fundy Tidal Inc., which has partnered with ORPC for an upcoming project at Digby Gut in southwestern Nova Scotia.

"In the next 12 months they will have the quantitative, verifiable information that will allow investors to make decisions. There are very few others who have come that far."

Competitors are fast on their heels, however.

Marine Current Turbines plans to test one of its pylon-mounted devices at the Minas test site, where it has leased one of the four available berths. French engineering giant Alstom and a three-company partnership that includes Lockheed Martin have the other berths, all of which will next month be connected to the province's power grid by undersea cables.

"We have a big resource right next to the grid, in a province with a friendly regulatory climate that wants to incentivize the industry," said Matthew Lumley, spokesperson for the test site, the Fundy Ocean Research Centre for Energy. "That's very compelling."

ORPC's primary U.S. rival is Verdant Power, which operated six windmill-like turbines in the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn from 2006 to 2008 and will begin deploying its first commercial array there in the second half of 2013. "We're very interested in tidal power in the Maritimes and have our eyes set on several sites," said Trey Taylor, president of Verdant's Ontario-based Canadian subsidiary.

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