Castine center to test tidal energy turbines

By Rich Hewitt, BDN Staff
Posted Oct. 17, 2010, at 7:39 p.m.

With state and federal approvals in hand, the Tidal Energy Demonstration and Evaluation Center at Maine Maritime Academy is ready to start full-scale testing on a tidal energy device. The center is the first in-stream tidal energy device testing facility in the country.

“We have all the building blocks together now to actually begin some testing,” Rick Armstrong, the center’s first full-time director, said recently.

TEDEC was originally formed in 2007 as a private-public partnership hosted by MMA and funded through a grant from the Libra Foundation.

The center’s early partners were focused on the commercial aspects of tidal energy in the area, which created permitting roadblocks and raised community concerns about the effects of commercial power generation.

Over the past two years, Armstrong said, TEDEC has done a complete 180-degree turnabout in its focus, which also has eased regulatory issues.

“We were heavily influenced by our industry partners with just a little focus on education,” Armstrong said. “We’ve completely flipped that. We are a completely transparent, education-based testing facility.”

As the vision for TEDEC changed, the corporate partners took on an advisory role, TEDEC’s board members were drawn from academia, the center became nonprofit, and additional funding came from public grant sources including the Department of Energy through the University of Maine.

The change in focus helped to smooth the regulatory process, Armstrong said.

In March, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted TEDEC a special order of clarification that allowed TEDEC to move forward without an extensive environmental review and paved the way for other federal and state permits, which the center obtained during the summer.

The order, Armstrong said, established TEDEC as the only in-stream tidal energy device testing facility in the U.S. and set the stage for the center to begin testing.

“That was a very large hurdle,” he said. “It set us up as a transparent, education-based testing facility and allowed us to generate electricity at low levels as long as it did not displace any other power.”

FERC’s criteria were threefold, according to Celeste Miller: The technology must be experimental, it must be temporary and any power generated must not be transmitted to the grid.

“We looked at the facts in this case,” Miller said. “It met all the requirements.”

That does not mean there will be no environmental assessment on the center’s two sites in the Bagaduce River.

Researchers with the University of Maine’s Maine Tidal Power Initiative have been conducting environmental studies and will continue to do so on the sites as part of its assessment of tidal energy locations in Maine.

According to Michael “Mick” Peterson, the Libra Foundation professor of engineering at UMaine who heads the project, the goal is to evaluate the amount of energy that can be removed from a particular site and to assess the environmental impact of the turbines on local ecosystems.

Researchers have been working with Ocean Renewable Power Co., the company that has developed a working generator in Eastport, but they also have studied several other sites in Maine, including the Bagaduce River.

This has provided a good opportunity for MMA and UMaine to work together on the river, Armstrong said, and created a nice partnership. TEDEC will share the environmental information developed at the site with local groups concerned with the health of the river environment, he said.

Testing

TEDEC provides a much-needed component in the emerging tidal energy industry, where there is a need for independent, reliable assessment of prototype turbines, Armstrong said. There are no independent “proving grounds” where designers and developers can test those devices, he said.

With no vested interest or commercial component to its operation, he said, TEDEC can effectively evaluate whether a design works.

“We’ll look at the physics of it, does it survive in a real-life situation outside of the lab,” Armstrong said. “We’re not so much interested in the number of light bulbs it lights up, but we’ll look at whether it behaves as the developer expected and whether it is capable of providing sufficient energy that can be fed to a generating device that produces electricity.”

Most tests will be short term, he said, with a device being run through a tide cycle and then removed from the water.

The FERC and other state and federal permits allow TEDEC to test devices at two sites, one in Castine Harbor near the MMA waterfront and the other about three miles upriver at an area known as the Narrows. The two sites provide different testing conditions, Armstrong said, with the harbor site and its tidal current of about 3 knots providing a low-flow testing area and the Narrows and its flow of as much as 8 or 9 knots offering a high-flow area.

TEDEC has done some initial tests on small-scale models developed by Maine Blue Stream Power, a small company in Blue Hill that is working on a rotary blade turbine. The engineering department at the University of Maine also has run tests on the same models on the Orono campus, and TEDEC has tested them in the Bagaduce River.

The initial tests have gone well, according to Anderson. It has been good for TEDEC to work with a small, developing company during its inaugural run, he said.

“I think it’s given us both a chance to feel our way through the process,” he said. “It was a good first test.”

A larger field model based on the design is under construction, and TEDEC expects to begin testing that device in the river this month.

TEDEC and MMA

While TEDEC provides a platform for commercial developers, Armstrong said that one of the most exciting aspects of the project is the practical, hands-on experience it provides MMA students. Those students will be involved in all aspects of the testing operations at TEDEC, which, he said, will give them a foot in the door of the emerging tidal energy industry.

“This is an opportunity for students to use the skills they’re learning here in a new and different way,” Armstrong said. “There’s a big gap in the industry which needs people who know how to make, move, install and monitor these devices. These students will have that experience.”

MMA has been involved in the TEDEC project from the beginning, and President William Brennan said that the center fits into the college’s area of expertise well and will provide another opportunity for students to develop knowledge and skills that will translate into a career.

“Everything we do here, and all the programs we offer, are designed to provide hands-on opportunities for students in their education that will prepare them for a career,” Brennan said. “This will give them a different type of experience that will add another option for them.”

Students already have been involved in several aspects of TEDEC’s preliminary tests last summer, including moving the scale model turbines from the shore to the Castine Harbor test site, deploying them in the river and monitoring them during the tests. The college has received several grants to do related research at the Castine site, and some students already are starting to investigate tidal energy research projects of their own.

Business students at the college also have become involved, preparing an informational session for community members early on in the project and organizing a tidal energy conference on the MMA campus planned for later this year.

While TEDEC remains a separate entity, both Armstrong and Brennan said there is potential for a closer relationship in the future.

With the focus now more on testing, Armstrong said TEDEC can rely on income from tidal energy developers for the funds it needs to operate.

Maine Blue Stream Power pays a fee for the tests TEDEC does on its devices, and other developers already have shown an interest in the test sites. While TEDEC could continue to operate on its own, Armstrong said it might work better as a part of MMA.

If the center were to become part of the college, he said, it could have a financial benefit, bringing revenues from the testing to MMA.

Brennan has more of a wait-and-see attitude, but he agreed that the possibility for a closer relationship exists.

“I see it as a research center that could become integrated with the college,” Brennan said. “I could see TEDEC as a research arm of the academy.”

http://bangordailynews.com/2010/10/17/news/castine-center-to-test-tidal-energy-turbines/ printed on December 19, 2014