February 22, 2010

Tide effects

A lot of hopes are riding on the final demonstration of a turbine designed to tap the powerful tides off Eastport

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

EASTPORT – Close by the Canadian border, this stretch of Down East Maine is known worldwide for its high tides and strong ocean currents. Peak tides rush in and out of Cobscook Bay at 7 miles per hour. From a boat, it's easy to appreciate the force of the water as it piles up against a large, white buoy moored off Shackford Head.

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John Ferland, vice president of project development with Ocean Renewable Power Co., stands inside one of the all-composite turbines that will be installed off the waters of Eastport. The upcoming test of the turbine, he said, is “like a Broadway debut”: It needs to generate momentum for the project.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Video: Click here to see the mooring installation

The quest for power

Energy and prosperity.

This corner of Washington County has been hoping for an energy project to buttress the area’s fragile economy since 1920. That’s when the idea first surfaced of damming Cobscook and Passamaquoddy bays and using tidal impoundments to generate electricity.

Work actually started on the Passamaquoddy Tidal Power Project in 1935, thanks to the support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had a summer home nearby on New Brunswick’s Campobello Island. Construction stopped a year later and never resumed, killed by financial trouble and opposition from politicians and utilities. The Route 190 causeway leading into Eastport – connecting Pleasant Point, Carlow Island and Moose Island – is a piece of that tidal dam.

In the 1970s, the Pittston Co. announced plans to build a $500 million oil refinery and supertanker terminal at Shackford Head. Environmentalists fought the project. But a larger issue was opposition from Canada over allowing tankers to transit New Brunswick waters through Head Harbour Passage. Pittston abandoned the project in 1983.

That foreshadowed Canada’s position on liquefied natural gas in the 21st century. Three Washington County proposals for LNG terminals in Passamaquoddy Bay have been announced in recent years. Two in the Calais area remain active, but the terminal plan closest to Eastport – Quoddy Bay LNG – appears dead after the developer withdrew attempts to gain state permits and became embroiled in legal disputes.

— Tux Turkel


Early next month, if all goes well, that buoy will anchor the country's largest ocean energy device -- an underwater turbine that turns the bay's surging tides into electricity. Dubbed the Energy Tide 2, the turbine will be a final demonstration before a commercial-scale generating unit is launched, hopefully next year.

For nearly a century, area residents have dreamed of producing power from moving seawater and tapping the economic potential that could flow with it. Now they feel close, closer than at any time since the 1930s, when historic plans to impound and funnel the bay fell apart.

The latest strategy isn't to dam up Cobscook Bay. Instead, barrel-shaped, Maine-made turbines with composite foils modeled after aircraft wings will be strategically stacked on the ocean floor, minimizing impact to the marine environment.

An earlier prototype of this design was successfully tested three years ago on the city's other side, in Western Passage, which separates Maine and New Brunswick. Over the next two months, researchers, regulators, investors and ocean energy wonks of all sorts will be coming here. What they find will go a long way toward determining whether Eastport, finally, will become the tidal energy capital of the East Coast.

That significance, and the pressure to make it happen, was clear last week to John Ferland as he stood in the stern of a local fishing boat and gave a tour of the demonstration site. Vice president for project development at Ocean Renewable Power Co., the start-up firm behind the $2.8 million project, Ferland knows how much is riding on this test period, for his company and the community.

''This demonstration is more like a Broadway debut,'' he said. ''We need to have a successful experience to maintain the momentum.''

The company is planning a public launch ceremony on March 2 at The Boat School maritime campus here. Company representatives, business partners and government officials are expected at the event, which will include a christening by middle school students.

Based in Portland, six-year- old Ocean Renewable also is working on a tidal project at Cook Inlet, Alaska. It's also considered a world-class site to harness tidal energy.

Eastport's mean tides exceed 18 feet, nearly twice the range in Portland. The city is on the American end of a growing, international experiment to extract reliable, cost-effective power from the Gulf of Maine. Across the gulf in the Bay of Fundy, Irish tech company OpenHydro is testing a 1-megawatt turbine in the Minas Passage of Nova Scotia, where tides range 40 feet or more.

A year or so from now, Ocean Renewable could have a 1-megawatt, stackable module of turbines off Eastport. Hooked to the Bangor Hydro-Electric grid, it could generate enough clean power at peak tidal flows to light more than 300 homes, Ferland said, and do it at a price competitive with wind energy.

That could lead to an expanded project with more modules and more output. If the technology can be refined to extract power from slower currents, and Ocean Renewable can win the needed regulatory permits, there may be enough good underwater sites around Eastport to install units with a total capacity of 100 megawatts. Building, installing and maintaining the turbines could create hundreds of jobs in an area where double-digit unemployment is the norm.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Staff Illustration/Jeff Woodbury

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