How the moon can power your home

Posted July 24, 2012, at 2:47 p.m.
Last modified July 24, 2012, at 5:54 p.m.

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Project Manager David Turner and Ocean Renewable Power Company spokesperson Suzy Kist explains how the company's 40-foot, 37,000 pound hydroturbine works during an open house on the company's barge in 2011.
Project Manager David Turner and Ocean Renewable Power Company spokesperson Suzy Kist explains how the company's 40-foot, 37,000 pound hydroturbine works during an open house on the company's barge in 2011. Buy Photo

For years researchers have sought ways to harness the power of ocean tides in order to create electricity, but they have been hampered by a lack of technology and funding. Blades snapped off tidal turbines in New York’s East River. Moorings became a problem off the coast of Portugal.

But on Tuesday a Portland-based company marked its significant contribution to a worldwide endeavor to commercialize tidal energy. Ocean Renewable Power Co. revealed its Cobscook Bay tidal energy power system, which will become the first commercial, grid-connected ocean energy project in North America. Other tidal and wave projects have been tested, but this system off Seward Neck in Lubec is set to be the first to connect to the complex network that delivers electricity from suppliers to consumers.

Tuesday’s event was ceremonial and allowed the public to view the turbine generator unit with long curved turbine foils. The company plans to submerge the device in mid-August, start delivering electricity by Sept. 1 and have the system operating continuously by Oct. 1. It is the first tidal energy device of the first phase of the Maine Tidal Energy Project. The company plans to add two more turbine generator units in Cobscook Bay and up to 18 at various sites in the Eastport-Lubec area over the next four years.

The technology has rightfully drawn national attention. This may be the beginning of a more diverse renewable energy portfolio for both Maine and the country. There are disadvantages to tidal power, such as the significant investment needed, the lengthy regulatory process and the fact that only a few places in the U.S. are suitable to host the energy systems.

But Maine is in a unique position to show what the technology can one day do. The Eastport region is home to the state’s highest tides. And it is located at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, which has recorded the highest tides in the world. Other ideal locations in the U.S. include Alaska and Florida.

Ocean power has potential, as evidenced by this first step into commercialization. Tides are more predictable than wind, and the density of water packs more energy. The devices have so far proven to be safe for the environment and, because they are located far underwater, there is no visual impact. But the machines can corrode, and it’s expensive to repair and build them. Ocean Renewable Power must continue to innovate and improve its design, with the aim of making it more competitive.

It’s a fact President and CEO Chris Sauer is well aware of. “We’ve absolutely proven the system works. Now the challenge is: We have to make it more effective, and we have to make it cheaper,” he said.

The company expects that its revenues will offset day-to-day expenses in two or three years. More than half of its funding has come from private sources, with the remainder coming from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Maine Technology Asset Fund. (Those who argue against the use of subsidies for renewable energy projects should remember that the oil and gas industry also receives tax breaks and subsidies.) The total project is estimated to cost $45 to $48 million.

The project is starting off small this summer, with the first unit capable of powering the equivalent of 20 to 25 homes. But it has piqued interest from experts across the planet. May the company continue its work with the greater picture in mind.

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