ORONO, Maine — Research into tidal power will get a boost in Maine thanks to a federal appropriation for a program involving the University of Maine, Maine Maritime Academy and a Portland-based company.
The $951,500 appropriation will be used to continue assessing prototypes and models of turbines that can be submerged in the ocean to take advantage of tidal currents to produce power.
Researchers also will move forward on a project to evaluate the potential environmental impact of tidal-energy generators off the coast of Eastport in the Western Passage of Passamaquoddy Bay.
UMaine will lead the project with Maine Maritime of Castine and Ocean Renewable Power Co. as partners in the research, which already has proved that harnessing tidal power can produce energy. Ocean Renewable has successfully generated power in the Western Passage, according to UMaine Libra Foundation professor of engineering Michael “Mick” Peterson, who is among the leaders of the project.
The next step is to determine the environmental impact of the turbines and energy output. That’s where the federal money comes in.
“This allows us to start the environmental and resource assessments,” Peterson said. “I’m hoping it’s a matter of months before we can ramp up staff and get moving. … This really gets us into the ocean energy game. We need to get started now on building the work force, starting to expand our infrastructures.”
The funding comes from a congressional initiative the Maine delegation developed.
Tidal power is created by submerged turbines with foils that are turned by the ocean’s currents similar to the way that wind moves turbines on land. Before full commercialization occurs, researchers and developers need to understand how the turbines will fit into the ocean environment.
“Since we’ve been talking about tidal energy — and it’s been around for a long time — there’s been obvious concern that when you put a turbine in the water that there could be potential [environmental] impact,” UMaine School of Marine Sciences fish biologist Gayle Zydlewski said in a release. “I think if we do it right, it can be done in a safe and sustainable way.”
No other state in the continental United States has the potential for tidal power that Maine has, Peterson said. There is potential to exploit tidal power in Alaska, but Maine’s advantage is that it is hooked up to the power grid on the East Coast. In fact, Maine’s tidal potential may be greater than that of the rest of the country combined, he said.
The jagged Maine coast with its channels and passages is well-suited for capturing tidal power, according to UMaine oceanography professor Huijie Xue, and Cobscook Bay and the Bay of Fundy have the highest tides in the world.
Once the environmental and commercial viability questions are answered, it is likely that the technology can be implemented quickly.
“This isn’t to discount offshore wind power, but that’s decades off,” Peterson said. “We’re talking a matter of a couple of years before we can use [tidal] energy. Our real challenge is getting the money to do the environmental and resource assessment, so we’ll know the impacts and we can predict what we’ll get from an energy standpoint.”
Should environmental assessments show potential damage to fisheries, Peterson said, the project would be reassessed.
Peterson said it’s hard to predict how much power can be harnessed.
“That’s the hardest question to [answer],” he said. “There’s gigawatts of power in those estuaries, and we know we won’t be able to get it all out.”
Already 25 students are working on the tidal project at UMaine, Maine Maritime and College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor with Ocean Renewable supporting two graduate students and five undergraduates with jobs at UMaine.