February 21, 2010

Underwater turbine nearly ready for a test drive

BY TUX TURKEL, Maine Sunday Telegram

EASTPORT -- Close by the Canadian border, this stretch of Downeast 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.

click image to enlarge

One of two new all composite hydro kinetic turbines that will be installed off the waters of Eastport, Me.

John Patriquin

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 sea water, and tapping the economic potential that could flow with it. Now they feel close, closer than 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 across from the city 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 to 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 of 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, not a headline.

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