Maine Takes Step Toward Developing Tidal Energy Generators

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On Thursday, Maine will take a major step forward as a leader in the field of tidal energy generation, when a 180-kilowatt turbine is lowered into the waters of a Bay, off Eastport.

The turbine, built by the Ocean Renewable Power Company, will be the first in the nation to feed energy to the commercial electricity grid.

Company officials celebrated the launch of the project with a waterfront ceremony recently. Federal officials showed up.

Eastport, at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, has the largest tides in the entire state. Water rises to 20 feet and recedes, twice a day. The device that will convert the never-ending flow into sellable power looks, well, a little like a massive, hand-operated lawn mower.

"What we have is a crossflow turbine here. It consists of a framework with a central generator in the middle of it. And multiple turbines connected to that generator," says Jarlath McEntee, who runs technology for Ocean Renewable Power Company.

McEntee says the lawnmower-like blades, and the yellow chassis that supports them, will be lowered into Cobscook Bay, where it will sit 15 feet off the ocean floor.

"And these turbines, they turn as the tidal flows come in and out," he says. "And they’ll rotate at a relatively low speed, about 40 RPM. They keep moving in the same direction, irregardless of which direction the flow is coming from. And they turn the generator shaft in the central generator here, which generates electricity, which will be transmitted to shore via an underwater cable that’s already been laid at the power site." And which connects to a Bangor Hydro-Electric substation, onshore in Lubec.

The turbine will generate 4 megawatts of electricty, enough to power 1,000 homes. It’s not all that much power. But turnout at the Eastport celebration served as a reminder that the project is about a lot more than how much electricity it will sell in year one.

Former governor and current U.S. Senate candidate Angus King was there, as was former Gov. John Baldacci. Both men have worked for years to make Maine a leader in the field of renewable energy. They were joined by Steven Chalk. He’s deputy assistant secretary with the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington. Chalk’s office has invested $10 million in the Cobscook Bay project.

"Investments, such as you see here, are really what we need to do to help our nation make significant strides for a clean energy future. Energy generation from water power resources can potentially provide, if projects like this are successful, up to 15 percent of the nation’s energy by 2030."

That’s a goal that President Obama has laid out for the nation.  Ocean Renewable plans to deploy two more turbines in Coobscook in the coming year and up to 18 in Passamaquoddy Bay, on the other side of Eastport, by 2016.

Jarlath McEntee says he expects venture capital firms to begin investing private equity in the company’s tidal power projects.

"The granting of a license to operate, which we have from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and the presence of a power purchase agreement, which we have as well, those are the key commercialization milestones that seem to be attractive to investors."

Ocean Renewable will need any additional money it can get its hands on, as competition in the tidal energy space heats up.  The first tidal energy site in North America began operating in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, in 1984, and the province is ramping up its support for additional projects in the coming years. In New York City, 30 tidal turbines will be installed in the East River by 2015.

Maine, and especially the communities of Lubec and Eastport, have a lot riding on Ocean Renewable’s ability to stay ahead of its competition. The company’s supply chain touches 13 of the state’s 16 counties. The company has invested as much as $18 million in Maine’s economy and hired more than 100 people. Bob Peacock is chairman of the Eastport City Council.

"I see Mr. Lawler here, who runs the Motel East, owns the Motel East. He can tell you, as every restaurant, bed and breakfast and motel in town, there’s a lot more to this than just the direct jobs," Peacock says. "It’s the indirect jobs. The indirect money that comes in. It has made such a difference. When you have a restaurant that normally would close in the winter, that stayed open and prospered all winter, that’s the spinoff that a lot of people don’t see. I see it. It’s wonderful."

It’s a level of activity that Peacock and other officials in the region hope will continue, as Ocean Renewable Power tries to stay ahead of its competition.

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