Tidal turbines: New sparks of hope for green energy from beneath the waves
After decades of abandoned plans and crushed prototypes, tidal powers finds new footing off the shores of Eastport, Maine.
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Until recently, American tidal energy companies were running behind their foreign rivals, whose governments have provided more extensive support. While ORPC was testing a small 60-kilowatt turbine off Eastport last fall, Dublin-based OpenHydro was deploying a two-story-tall one-megawatt device at a government-backed test site off Parrsboro, Nova Scotia, at the head of the Bay of Fundy, where tides reach 50 feet. But the 30-foot-tall device – which resembled the front of a jet engine fan – was no match for the powerful currents there, which tore off its communications devices and at least two of its 16 fan blades.Skip to next paragraph
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"Measurements showed there was certainly a lot more energy in the Bay of Fundy than we anticipated, which is a great thing in terms of the potential to harness power from those tides," says Jennifer Parker, a spokesperson for Nova Scotia Power, the provincial utility working with OpenHydro.
Meanwhile, Irving Oil, part of a family-owned conglomerate that dominates the economic and political life of New Brunswick, announced last June it was abandoning its $600,000 tidal energy research project due to "uncertainty around the true viability of tidal technologies."
This has left ORPC – whose devices have met or exceeded expectations – at the forefront of the infant industry. The company plans to deploy a full-scale 150-kilowatt unit off Eastport later this year, intending it to become the first tidal device to be connected to a US electrical grid. In March, they announced plans to deploy a second unit across the Bay of Fundy in Tiverton, Nova Scotia, in 2012. ORPC's design consists of stackable power units tethered to the ocean floor, and both projects are to add additional units by 2015, to a total of more than five megawatts – enough to power about 4,000 homes.
Community engagement was likely vital to ORPC's success in Eastport, a community with a timeworn skepticism about the promises of outside developers. In living memory, the town has seen large projects to build tidal dams, an oil refinery, salmon farms, and, most recently, liquefied natural-gas terminals, come to naught. But ORPC forged partnerships with local divers, fishermen, environmentalists, and business leaders early on.
Today, the company's closest rival is also American. New York-based Verdant Power has for several years been testing its propellerlike turbines in the tidal currents of the East River next to Manhattan, and has applied for federal permits to deploy and grid-connect an array of 30 of them, possibly starting later this year.
"A lot of the initial activity in this industry took place in Europe, but with these projects moving forward in the US, I think the profile of the industry is shifting to some degree to the United States," says Mr. Jacobson.
"It's going to be very interesting," he says, "to see what develops over the coming year."