US tidal-energy industry catching up to Europe, official says

Posted Nov. 14, 2010, at 9:24 p.m.

CASTINE, Maine — The emerging ocean energy industry is making strides, but many challenges lie ahead to meet the goal of developing a viable commercial ocean energy industry by 2030.

That’s according to Anne Miles, the director of the hydropower licensing division at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Miles was the keynote speaker Saturday at a tidal power forum sponsored by the Tidal Energy Demonstration and Evaluation Center at Maine Maritime Academy.

The U.S. may have had a slow start working on tidal energy, she said, but it no longer is lagging behind other nations. The time is right, she said, for clean domestic renewable energy.

“There’s a growing sense that we are catching up,” Miles said. “We are no longer behind Europe, and while we may not be ahead, we are certainly neck and neck on tidal development.”

Miles said that the challenges facing the nascent industry lie both in the developing technology and in the regulation of proposed sites, as well as the monitoring needed to ensure that tidal facilities do not have undue effects on the environment.

“The environmental impacts are starting to be understood, but we need more confirmation, we need to develop more effective monitoring techniques,” she said.

One of the difficulties with a new technology and a new industry is that there is little information about their effects. Mick Peterson, a researcher with the University of Maine, noted, for example, that existing studies on fish stocks in the Eastport area are more than 30 years old. Dana Murch, a hydropower specialist with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, agreed there is little information about how these developing devices affect the environment and existing uses such as recreational boating and commercial fishing operations.

“There’s no place to go to tell us what these effects are,” he said. “There’s no discussions out there anywhere in the world.”

FERC is very good at regulating and monitoring conventional hydropower projects such as dams, Miles said, but the agency needs to understand the new technologies and their effects. That’s why the work that’s going on at TEDEC and its testing of a new device being developed by Maine Blue Stream Power and the Maine Tidal Power Project’s research around the Ocean Renewable Power Co. project in Eastport is so important, she said.

“We’re learning by getting projects in the water,” she said. “What you’re doing here is exactly what we need to move forward.”

One of the challenges facing the tidal power industry, Miles said, is that projects need not only to meet FERC regulations, but also approval from a variety of other federal and state agencies, and sometimes require local permits as well. More needs to be done, she said, to coordinate those efforts.

She noted that Maine is one of just four states that has a memorandum of understanding with FERC that helps to streamline the permitting process and added that Maine agencies coordinate their review process, which included a requirement to issue a permit within 60 days of the receipt of a complete application.

“You’re very lucky to have that here,” she said. “That’s not available anywhere else.”

She added that the funding available through the Maine Technology Institute was helpful to developers as they go through the permitting process, particularly moving from a pilot project permit to a full commercial license. That type of funding, Miles said, is not always available in other states.

As with other agencies, Miles said, FERC has had to adapt and likely will need to continue to adapt as the ocean power industry develops.

“We’re trying to adapt and we learn more,” she said. “It’s going to require flexible, creative thinking. We are going to have to look at the law and our regulations and stay within them, and adapt in a way that takes into account a new industry.”

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