Tides of Promise
Can tidal energy bring easternmost Maine back to life?
- By: Colin Woodard
Image courtesy Ocean Renewable Power Company
Eighty-five years ago, the people of easternmost Maine thought they had it made. A world-famous hydroelectric engineer, Dexter Cooper, had plans to dam up all of Passamaquoddy Bay, harnessing its twenty-foot tides to generate cheap electricity. The vast barrages would wall the bay off from the sea, connect Deer Island and Eastport to the mainland, and employ five thousand in their construction alone. “In Eastport it is easy to dream of great days to come — of a region humming with industry and with swarms of oceangoing vessels anchored in the ample and well protected harbor,” the New York Times reported in the fall of 1925, predicting the project would trigger “an industrial revival throughout Northeastern New England.”
But it was not to be. Canada nixed the ambitious border-straddling project in 1928, unwilling to countenance the wholesale destruction of the region’s fisheries. F.D.R. got a scaled-back plan under way during the Great Depression but it was nixed by Congress. J.F.K. wanted to complete the dams, but was assassinated before he could do so. Eastport, Lubec, and the other communities of eastern Washington County continued their slide into poverty as local industries went bust and steamship and rail links with the rest of the country evaporated. Eastport’s population is now a third of what it was a century ago, and the county is the poorest in the state.
“This town needs some development or we’re going to die,” says Eastport City Council Chairman Bob Peacock, a master mariner who pilots freighters through the tricky currents and narrow ocean passages to and from Eastport. “The only asset we have is the water, and we just get taxed for that.”
But Eastport is getting yet another chance to harness its tides, this time with technologies that promise to do so without harming fish, restricting navigation, or even sullying the view. With some of the most powerful tides in the United States, Maine’s easternmost city has already established itself as one of the preeminent testing grounds in the world for a promising renewable power source. And for the first time in decades, people are daring to dream of great things to come.
The latest visionary is Chris Sauer, an affable engineer who’s developed cogeneration plants in Florida and wind farms in Wisconsin. For the past three years, his Portland-based Ocean Renewable Power Company (ORPC) has been testing prototypes of a new type of underwater turbine generator in the cold, turbulent waters of Passamaquoddy and Cobscook bays, where the tides flow back and forth like a reversible river. The tests have gone well, $17 million in state and federal grants have been won, and the company is preparing to build and deploy a full-scale 150-kilowatt device and attach it to the power grid next year. In seven years he expects to be generating one hundred megawatts of electricity here, enough to power eighty thousand homes.
“It’s the Kitty Hawk of tidal energy,” Sauer says of the area at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy. “You can go anywhere in the world and people know about Eastport.”
ORPC is testing its take on “in-stream” tidal generation, an approach inspired by wind turbines that requires neither a dam nor an impoundment reservoir. In-stream turbines are simply mounted or tethered to the sea floor, where they are slowly spun by the naturally occurring currents out of sight and well beneath the hulls of even the largest ships. Ongoing tests have thus far indicated no adverse effect on marine life.
Until recently, most of the action in the infant tidal power industry was happening in Europe, where governments have provided more extensive support. “So some of the European devices have been on the scene longer and been through a greater number of iterations, development stages, and testing,” says Paul Jacobson of the Electric Power Research Institute, whose 2006 survey of North American tidal power sites kicked off the flurry of interest in the Bay of Fundy. “But with ORPC’s recent successes, things are very much wide open.”
The Maine company’s rivals have had setbacks as well. Last fall, Dublin-based OpenHydro deployed its in-stream design at a government-backed test site off Parrsboro, Nova Scotia, at the head of the Bay of Fundy, where tides reach fifty feet. But the one-megawatt device lost at least two of its ten fan blades in the powerful currents and will have to be recovered and replaced. The Passamaquoddy tribe abandoned testing of another prototype after that device’s founder died unexpectedly.
Irving Oil announced in June it was abandoning its six hundred thousand-dollar tidal energy research project to survey eleven sites on the New Brunswick side of Passamaquoddy Bay. Irving’s loss may be Maine’s gain, as Sauer says his company is actively negotiating with provincial officials to step in. “It seems we’ll have the opportunity to expand across the line into the Deer Island area,” he says, adding that ORPC is also in preliminary discussions to extend their technology to sites in Nova Scotia. This could put Eastport in the novel role as an international technology transfer hub.
“Eastport will be the center of know-how for how to do everything — maintenance, installation, marine services, environmental impact assessments,” says Sauer. “Eastport has the people with the know-how to train other people.”
The area’s tides have also attracted the inventor of another tidal power approach, Ramez Atiya of Salt Lake City, Utah, who wants to construct a high-tech, low-impact tidal fence across the mouth of Half Moon Cove, one of Cobscook’s many embayments. Atiya’s scheme, which has the tacit approval of the Eastport City Council, would hold back the cove’s incoming and outgoing tides by an hour, generating power as it flows through slow-turning turbines. “It leaves the intertidal zone, mudflats, and fishing activities just as they are, just with an hour’s delay,” says Atiya, who says the $62-million project will complement ORPC’s plans. “They’re a tidal-stream technology, we’re a tidal-range technology. When we’re producing maximum power, they’re producing none, so they’re truly synergetic,” he says. “If we’re both successful, Eastport will be the center of tidal development in the world.”
Eastporters have seen grand proposals come and go — tidal dams in the 1920s and 1930s, an oil refinery in the 1970s, fish farms in the 1990s, liquefied natural gas terminals in the 2000s — with a frequency surpassed only by the opening and closing of shops, galleries, and restaurants on Water Street. “Most people are a little skeptical because they’ve seen so many grand schemes,” says Will Hopkins of the Cobscook Bay Resource Center. “These projects are a little different.”
The key: ORPC approached the community early on, forging genuine partnerships with the town, local contractors, fishermen, conservationists, and business leaders. “Unlike most developers, ORPC didn’t come in here and say, here is our plan and here are our blueprints and here’s where it’s going to go and how many jobs it will create,” Hopkins adds. “They asked people in Washington County to help them with a start-up, and most people around here consider themselves start-ups and identified with them.”
“They’ve done everything right,” says Chris Gardner, director of the Port of Eastport. “From day one they made a concerted effort to recognize that the fishing community is one of the backbones of the area and that they were just guests in the water. They’ve shown great deference and respect for the people of Eastport and have really become part of the community.”
But while ORPC’s current device — a forty-six-foot wide, fourteen-foot, sixty-kilowatt turbine — has met the company’s power generation expectations at its Cobscook test site, the real tests may lie ahead. “Making something spin and produce power is the easy part,” warns Mark Savory, vice president of Nova Scotia Power, which is partnered with OpenHydro for its Parssboro tests. “Getting it to survive in what is a pretty harsh environment is where the real challenge lies.”
- By: Colin Woodard