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Tides Hit the New England Grid

History was quietly made off the coast of Maine on September 13th when an underwater turbine, anchored on the floor of Cobscook Bay, came online. It’s the first time a commercially licensed tidal power project has generated electricity for the grid and signals the first step in exploiting a renewable resource that the Department of Energy (DOE) suggests can contribute up to 15% of the nation’s electrical power by 2030.

The Cobscook Bay project is administered by Ocean Renewable Power Company (ORPC) who developed and implemented the TidGen Power System. TidGen is an array of metal foil sheets resembling a vacuum cleaner head mounted on struts, running roughly 100ft across and 30ft high. Currently in pilot phase, the project will eventually add two additional TidGen turbines, each with a peak output of 180kw. Upon completion the project is expected to generate enough power for a hundred homes.

Coastal Maine is a hotbed of kinetic energy. The project location enjoys regular 20ft tides and possibly serves as a laboratory to prepare future models for the neighboring Bay of Fundy, whose 50ft tides are the world’s highest.

ORPC was founded in Florida in 2004 but is now based in Portland. After finalizing the plans for their proprietary Turbine Generator Unit and partnering with the Navy for development and research the company filed for permits with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to operate in Maine and Alaska. Demonstrations garnered money from the Maine Technology Institute and a loan from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. ORPC opened their first office in an incubator program administered by the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, then a second in Eastport, Maine, near the site of the Cobscook Bay Project. During tests in the waters of Maine the company continued to collect money from several technology funds, as well as repeat investment from the DOE. The first TidGen prototype was launched for field-testing in 2010.

Paperwork for the pilot project was filed with FERC in September of 2011 and licenses were issued in February of this year. In April Maine’s utility commission inked a 20-year purchasing agreement between ORPC and three utilities.

Some locals have been quick to point out that the state subsidized rate for tidal generated electricity at 21.5¢ per kilowatt hour is almost double the current price. Cheap natural gas is rapidly expanding throughout the nation but Maine Public Advocate Richard Davies, who represents ratepayers, suggests that fossil fuel prices will grow faster than anything generated by the ocean. Ideological arguments over government spending on alternative power projects continue but were recently dealt a blow when The Breakthrough published a report on the history of collaboration between power companies and Washington.

Natural gas burns cleaner than coal but official reports of pollution resulting from the hydraulic fracturing of shale deposits are beginning to surface. Once tidal turbines are manufactured and placed they generate no carbon emissions. Unlike traditional dams they do not capture water and disturb natural sediment flows and ORPC says that thus far they have observed no impact on fish or other marine life.

The Cobscook Bay project has already been an economic boon for Maine’s coastal hamlets. ORPC, which employes a full-time staff of five, estimates that it has spent $14m locally, $4m of which has stayed in Eastport. Although TidGen was developed in-house contracting firms have been hired for fabrication and installation of the system.

Debate over the economics will continue, but the science proven. The power of ocean currents have been exploited since Roman times with dammed pools and water wheels dotting the coasts of Europe . France has been producing electricity from the seas on an industrial scale at La Rance, a tidal barrage similar to a dam, since the mid-60’s.

ORPC is not alone in the brave new world of tidal power. The 1.2mw tower turbine SeaGen, the world’s first commercial tidal power project, was brought online off the coast of Northern Ireland in 2007. Verdant Power, recipient of the first American commercial license, has been conducting tests of their wind turbine inspired Free Flow System in New York’s East River since 2006. Verdant aims to produce 1mw of electricity by the next decade, enough to power almost 10,000 homes. Each success rides the back of many failures. Ireland’s Open Hydro saw the blades of their three story turbine at a test site in the Minas Passage, Nova Scotia, torn apart by tides moving at 12knots. Their Canadian partners abandoned further tests earlier this year. Irving Oil walked away from a $6000,000 survey in the Passamaquoddy Bay.

The companies who establish themselves now could lead the world’s next energy boom. At the beginning of this year the DOE released the results of two studies assessing energy potential of tides and waves. If properly implemented ocean power could comprise 15% of the nation’s total electrical supply by 2030– conventional hydropower currently contributes 6%. American usage averages 4,000 terawatt hours and the studies estimate total ocean power potential at 1,420twhs, but many prime locations present difficult conditions for development and sit far from grid connections. According to the report prepared by Georgia Tech Alaska tops the charts with the Cook Inlet capable of producing 18gw alone. Other significant untapped resources lie off the coasts of Washington, Maine, South Carolina, New York, Georgia, California, New Jersey, Delaware and Virginia.

To capitalize on a carbon-free energy source companies need the right technology and opportunity. The industry is in its infancy with many missteps yet to be made. A high potential for failure is a prohibitive stumbling block for private investment, requiring a decision to be made by the government whether they are willing to back another developing power resource until it can stand on its own feet. Electrical rates will initially be higher than power produced by the established systems propped up by cheap natural gas and coal, but with widespread implementation comes lower costs. ORPC is currently initiating projects in the Cook Inlet, building on what they have developed with the help they have already received. It will take support and collaboration to ensure that they and others can grow and develop a new industry without contributing to the environmental nightmare we’ve already created.

Image of the TidGen turbine provided by Ocean Renewable Power Company.

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