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The TideGen water turbines will take advantage of the Bay of Fundy’s fast-flowing tides to generate 150 kilowatts of power.
Credit: Ocean Renewable Power Company

The Bay of Fundy, renowned for having the greatest tidal range in the world, is a short step away from having the first grid-connected ocean energy project in the U.S.

Ocean Renewable Power Company yesterday hosted a ceremony to mark the first phase of the Maine Tidal Energy Project. Having received a pilot project license earlier this year from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and installed a bottom support frame for its water turbine, the company projects the machine will begin delivering electricity to the grid by October.

The plan is to have the turbine, able to generate 150 kilowatts with water running at about seven miles per hour, operate for a year and then add more turbines in different locations. The company’s hope is to connect 20 turbines to generate 3 megawatts of power.

In the scheme of the broader electrical grid, even getting to three megawatts is a small contribution, about enough to power 1,200 homes and businesses in Maine, the company estimates. But the project, if it does successfully connect to the grid, is a significant milestone for the ocean power industry in the U.S. which has had no commercial impact to date.

Converting the motion of waves or tides into electrical energy in the U.S. has the potential to supply thousands of terawatt-hours per year, or roughly one third of the electricity used now, according to the Department of Energy and the Electric Power Research Institute.

Compared to solar panels or wind turbines, ocean power machines can be placed out of sight. Another major advantage is that the tides and waves provide a steady, predictable source of power, compared to solar and wind which are intermittent.

But the ocean power industry has been beset by a number of setbacks, including abandoned projects and very long development times. In its case, Ocean Renewable Power Company has been working on tidal projects since 2007.

Part of the challenge is clearing a number of technical and environmental hurdles. Companies need to do extensive testing to ensure sea life isn’t adversely affected and to assess the potential of energy sources. The oceans are also the harshest environments to install and maintain machinery, all of which translates into costs.

The power generated from the Bay of Fundy turbine in Cobscook Bay will be purchased from three Maine utilities at a starting price of 21.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, or almost double Maine’s average electricity prices, according to an article in the Boston Globe. The estimated cost of the project is $21 million, including research and development. 

At yesterday’s ceremony, which was the last public viewing of the turbine before it’s installed under water, local officials told the Globe that the higher price is justified by the economic benefits that Ocean Renewable Power Company has brought to its base in Eastport, where the once-thriving fish and canning industries have dried up. 

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Tagged: Energy, tidal power

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