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Can a Small Maine Town’s Innovation Turn the Tides on Sustainable Energy?

September 15, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
One of the big obstacles to clean energy is that most renewable sources are unreliable. A Maine company has installed the nation’s first commercial, grid connected tidal energy project. Water power is estimated to nearly double by 2030 and provide an estimated 15% of the total domestic electricity supply.
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MONA ISKANDER: The sun rises early in Eastport, Maine – it’s the Eastern most city in the United States – and while the streets are quiet, fishing boats set out for the day. And reliably, these massive tides are flowing in and out, just as they have twice a day, every day for millions of years.

And it’s that fact, that predictability that people in this corner of Maine believe could change the face of America’s energy future over the next couple of decades.

CHRIS SAUER: Tides are totally predictable, we’ve known for centuries when the tides are comin’ and goin’…

MONA ISKANDER: Chris Sauer is the chief executive of the Ocean Renewable Power Company, which after five years of planning, installed an underwater turbine last summer in this bay… 2,200 feet from the shore. It turns the tides into clean, renewable energy.

CHRIS SAUER: We can tell you on– you know, this day, 20 years from now– at this moment, how much electricity we’ll be generating.

MONA ISKANDER: It’s a $21 million dollar project funded almost equally between private and public sources, and it’s the first commercial tidal energy project delivering power to the grid anywhere in the US.

CHRIS SAUER: Unlike wind or solar where, you know, you may get a cloud that comes over and you have these huge swings or you have a big gust of wind, we don’t have that under the ocean.

MONA ISKANDER: The unit is nearly 100 feet long and sixty feet below the water’s surface. The turbines are shaped like stretched out and twisted water wheels and work on the same principle: as the tide comes and goes the turbine spins, generating electricity, which is then transmitted through a buried power cable to a small on shore station, 400 feet inland. And from there it’s fed to the public electrical grid.

MONA ISKANDER: So, when you’re looking out on the bay, what do you see?

CHRIS SAUER: You see absolutely nothing the view after is exactly the same as the view before. Everything is below water.  The equipment’s below water.  There are marker buoys for the project area, but– other than that, you don’t see anything.

MONA ISKANDER: What do you think the potential of this is, realistically?

CHRIS SAUER: We know this works as we improve the technology, we’re talking 10, 15, 20 years down the road there will be applications for this technology virtually in every state– in the country. Because the– the technology doesn’t just apply to tidal, it applies to rivers and it– it applies to offshore– ocean currents, such as the Gulf Streams.

MONA ISKANDER: Power from water comes almost entirely from dams, providing nearly 7% of the country’s electricity needs. The US Department of Energy estimates that number will more than double by the year 2030, rising to 15%. And the potential is even greater than that.

JOSE ZAYAS: A third of our nation’s electricity could potentially come from ocean energy…

MONA ISKANDER: So a third, I mean, that’s– that’s a big deal, right?

JOSE ZAYAS: It is. It is a big deal.

MONA ISKANDER: Jose Zayas is director of the Wind and Water Power Technologies Office at the Department of Energy.

MONA ISKANDER: How realistic is it that these new technologies– like t– tidal power can become a sizable part of our energy production?

JOSE ZAYAS: When we think about the country, as a whole, 50% of our people live near a water. Significant amount of people.  When we think about the largest cities around the country, they also tend to be close to the water, okay? If we continue down a trajectory where we reduce the cost of these technologies, you can actually have a significant impact on the local energy demands of that particular region or state.

The federal government has invested nearly $116 million dollars in dozens of what are called hydrokinetic water power projects in the past six years. They include a pilot project to capture the energy of the East River in New York, a buoy system to convert wave energy into electricity in Oregon, and Ocean Renewable Power Company’s tidal turbine in Maine, which the Energy Department invested $10 million dollars in. Right now, it only produces enough electricity for 25 homes.

MONA ISKANDER: Why is this a good use of taxpayer money?

JOSE ZAYAS: You must recognize these first pioneering kinds of projects are complicated.  You’re really breaking new ground, and I think that ORPC has really kinda paved the beginnings of the road for this industry.

MONA ISKANDER: So the one– turbine you have right now is powering 25 homes.

CHRIS SAUER: It generates enough power in a year to power 25 homes, that’s correct.

MONA ISKANDER: Which is very small.

CHRIS SAUER: And that’s– that’s small– that’s right.  And– you– you need to start small. So– there will be– breakthroughs that we’ll come through.  We already have bigger units planned.  And the secret here is in—replication. The drill we’re going through is how do we make it more efficient and how do we make it significantly cheaper.  How do we make it competitive with other sources?

MONA ISKANDER: And it’s not competitive now. The electricity generated by the tidal turbine costs about three times as much as Eastport’s other energy sources.

And cost isn’t the only obstacle. There are also concerns about the impact on fish, sea mammals, even migratory birds.

MONA ISKANDER: You’re talking about placing a 90,000 pound, 100-foot-long turbine into the ocean.  You’re telling me there’s no impact on the environment?

CHRIS SAUER: We do extensive monitoring, and the bottom line is that there is no known– impacts– to the marine environment.

MONA ISKANDER: Convincing local residents of that was vital, because the region’s economy depends on the water. Dave Marang is the local manager for Cooke Aquaculture, which operates salmon farms in the bay off Eastport.

DAVID MARANG: Over the site there’s 15 cages and there’s around 30,000 fish in each one of those cages. And they have a pretty good life. [Laughs]

MONA ISKANDER: Salmon farming, commercial fishing, shipping, and tourism are among the biggest employers in the area. And in a county with the state’s highest unemployment rate of 9.3 percent, many were deeply concerned about anything that could harm business.

DAVE MARARNG: Well it was kind of it was kind of funny, a friend of mine he come and sees me and told me what they wanted to do and my first reaction was you wanna do what?

MONA ISKANDER: But in the six years since the tidal project began, Marang says that it actually hasn’t been disruptive. In fact, he says it’s been a boon to the local economy.

DAVE MARANG: They’ve come in and they’ve hired people. It’s like, you’ve got to take 5 jobs in Eastport would be equal to 50 jobs in a city like Bangor, Maine. You know, every job counts around here.

MONA ISKANDER: The company has invested $5 million dollars in the area, opening a local office and hiring dozens of local contractors for everything from harbor pilots to construction divers.

And the hope is that the project will generate more jobs during the next five years. The company is planning on installing 18 additional turbines – eventually powering up to 2,000 homes. And to aid in that effort, just last month the US Department of Energy announced nearly $5 million dollars in additional grants.

CHRIS SAUER: We’re doing stuff that’s never been done before.  We like to– kid our people about, you know– we don’t have any operation manuals. I wish I could say that the journey is nearing an end, but it’s actually just beginning.