A Rising Tide

Posted May 01, 2009, at 5:24 p.m.

Dexter Cooper would be pleased. By the end of the summer, a turbine powered by Passamaquoddy Bay’s powerful tides will be producing electricity. The project is being planned by the U.S. Coast Guard, and it will power its Eastport station.

Because the scope of the project is modest — costing an estimated $100,000 — it’s a low-risk step. If it is successful, it may become a prototype for other Coast Guard tidal power endeavors, and could prove the viability of far greater tidal power operations in the Passamaquoddy Bay and Cobscook Bay region, and elsewhere in Maine.

As any visitor to this stunningly beautiful area of the state can attest, the sheer force and volume of the tides is inspiring. The 70 billion cubic feet moving in the area’s 22-foot tides inspired Mr. Cooper, a hydroelectric engineer who spent time on Campobello Island in the early 20th century. He persuaded the federal government, when fellow Campobello resident Franklin Roosevelt was president, to investigate a tide power project that would have built dams across the mouths of both Passamaquoddy and Cobscook bays to serve as impoundment areas.

Mr. Cooper’s plan would have released the water from the two bays in stages, so as to keep the electricity steadily flowing. Several dikes were built, including the one that supports Route 190 joining Moose Island (Eastport) to the mainland, and others that can still be seen at low tide, but the project was deemed economically unfeasible. Yet for decades, efforts were made to revive the idea.

Mr. Cooper envisioned using the tide-generated electricity to power a smelting operation using local ore. Other marriages of power to industry are possible if some of the other tidal proposals in the area come to fruition.

The notion of the federal government achieving some degree of self-sufficiency by generating electricity for its Coast Guard station is especially pleasing in these tight economic times. Coast Guard planners are thinking about expanding such efforts. Sen. Susan Collins, in a statement about the Eastport project, referred to the efforts as “creative approaches to energy.” That is exactly right. Creativity is at the heart of technological innovation. Mr. Cooper dared to dream big, while letting those who crunch numbers determine if and when those ideas bore fruit. Seventy-five years later, the dream’s time may have arrived.

Electricity generated by the tides, rivers, wind and sun will replace only a fraction of that now generated by fossil fuels, unless big leaps in innovation change the energy landscape. But each step forward, big or small, in these renewable energy arenas should be cheered. And that big leap in efficiency or cost effectiveness may be just around the corner.

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