New Agreement to Speed Up Tidal Energy Exploration

AUGUSTA — A new agreement struck between state and federal agencies will accelerate the exploration of whether electricity can be generated from the ebb and flow of tides.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) agreed to work in concert when reviewing applications for tidal energy projects, according to a memorandum signed Aug. 19 by Governor John Baldacci and FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff.


What amounts to a bureaucratic paper shuffle will have real-world effects for firms studying the possibility, said John Ferland, vice president for project development for Ocean Renewable Power Co. of Portland. In July, Ocean Renewable applied for a license to deploy underwater turbines below a barge in the water near Eastport. The license would allow the company to operate the turbines and sell the power they generate for up to eight years in order to test its inventions against the rigors of the ocean.

Ocean Renewable also needs a permit from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which under the normal process would be applied for after action by FERC. The new agreement calls for the agencies to work concurrently and for Maine to make a ruling within 60 days of receiving a FERC-approved application.

“The application we filed with FERC is 1,100 pages long in three volumes,” said Ferland. “It’s a lot of paperwork. To have the state of Maine accept this application as their application is a big deal. That’s a significant piece of streamlining.”

Dana Murch, hydropower coordinator for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, couldn’t be specific about how the memorandum would affect the approval timeline, but said there’s no doubt it’ll be quicker.

“Without coordination there’s no guarantees that the process would happen in any particular timeframe,” said Murch. “Both of us are agreeing to be reasonable and to act as quickly as we both can.”

The quest for the type of technology being explored by Ocean Renewable, along with a host of partners and the University of Maine, has proven elusive. Murch said there are fewer than six commercial tidal power projects in the world and they all use dams around coves to trap water and generate electricity as it drains in and out. The turbine design, which uses blades or propellers suspended underwater, has less environmental impact because the hardware is below the surface. It could even be deployed in rivers below existing hydroelectric dams.

“We could use the same water twice,” said Murch.

So far, however, the gulf between ideas and reality when it comes to tidal turbines has been wide and some designs have already failed. Aside from the design and engineering, Murch said a major unknown is how underwater animals will react.

“It’s conceivable that the fish will just swim around these,” he said. “We don’t know.”

Aside from the Ocean Renewable project, there are several other tidal projects under development in Maine, said Murch. Maine Maritime Academy is exploring the establishment of a Tidal Energy Device Evaluation Center in waters near Castine, and Tidewalker Associates of Trescott is studying a dam-based design around Half-Moon Cove in Eastport. The Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point is also studying a tidal power plant near Eastport and the town of Wiscasset is looking at a project in the Sheepscot River. The others are what Murch called “homeowner-scale projects.”

“The next step is to get one of these in the water,” said Murch. “Tidal power is where wind power was 20 years ago in terms of research and design and knowledge of environmental impacts. The question is how long it takes tidal to catch up.”

John Kerry, director of Governor Baldacci’s Office of Energy Independence and Security, said Maine is the first East Coast state to reach an agreement with FERC on tidal power, a fact that gives the state a decided advantage.

“It really puts us out front in providing the example and attracting developers to come to Maine,” said Kerry. “There’s a lot of competition going on for tidal energy in this country, especially on the East Coast. Whoever’s in the water first with the technology will have a leg up on everyone else in the industry.”

Despite the complexity of judging an application, both Murch and Ferland are optimistic that the Ocean Renewable project will move forward quickly.

“It’s eminently feasible that the project will be approved and in the water by the end of 2010,” said Ferland.

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