Years of effort await tidal energy developer

With the underwater turbine in the background, US Department of Energy's Deputy Assistant Secretary for Renewable Energy Steven Chalk addresses the attendees of the Cobscook Bay Tidal Energy Dedication Ceremony in Eastport on Tuesday, July 24, 2012.
Michael C. York | BDN
With the underwater turbine in the background, US Department of Energy's Deputy Assistant Secretary for Renewable Energy Steven Chalk addresses the attendees of the Cobscook Bay Tidal Energy Dedication Ceremony in Eastport on Tuesday, July 24, 2012. Buy Photo
Posted July 26, 2012, at 2:20 p.m.
Last modified July 26, 2012, at 3:39 p.m.

EASTPORT, Maine — Now that the celebratory speeches are over, there’s no shortage of work to be done to bring to reality Ocean Renewable Power Co.’s vision of harnessing ocean tides to generate electricity.

On Tuesday, more than 200 advocates of the concept gathered in Eastport for the formal dedication of Ocean Renewable’s first TidGen turbine, which is scheduled to be submerged at a Cobscook Bay test site in August.

The rectangular turbine resembles an elongated paddle wheel that is 98 feet wide and almost 20 feet high. When submerged in a 6-knot tidal current, the turbine is expected to generate as many as 150 kilowatts, enough electricity to supply 20 to 25 homes.

Millions of dollars and eight years of design, fabrication and testing went into development of Ocean Renewable’s turbine, which company officials expect to be the first of many it will manufacture in the Washington County community of Eastport. As one speaker noted on Tuesday, creating the techniques and technologies required to make tidal energy a viable form of clean, reliable and renewable power generation is a development process akin to a marathon, not a 50-yard dash.

The first mile now having been run, plans are being made by Freeport-based CPM Constructors to develop a 9-acre parcel adjacent to the Eastport Boat School complex at Morrison Landing as a fabrication facility. It will house the workforce that will assemble the next generation of TidGen turbines.

Paul Koziell, CPM’s chief operating officer, said construction of a 60-by-120-foot building that will house Ocean Renewable’s fabrication, assembly and deployment operations will begin in the fall of 2013, assuming the first year of turbine operations goes as planned.

“The actual construction should take only a couple of months,” he said. “We’ll also have a large outdoor assembly area.”

Koziell said the task of building the first turbine created 20 jobs at CPM Constructors and another 10 at Newport Industrial Fabrication, a subcontractor on the project. Both Koziell and Newport Industrial Fabrication President Dan Gerry said their firms will expand staffing once construction of new turbines begins.

“We’ve had a very successful partnership, not only on this project but many others,” Koziell said of Newport Industrial Fabrication. “Dan’s company and mine have been working together for years.”

Ocean Renewable’s next step is getting its first TidGen unit into the water before Sept. 1. The underwater footings required are already in place, 82 feet beneath the surface of a 61-acre area between Goose Island and Grove Point. Also in place is an underwater cable that will link the turbine to an existing Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. substation at Kendall Head, north of Eastport.

Once the unit is operational, the U.S. Department of Energy is requiring visual inspection every 12 weeks for a year. That involves using a large, barge-mounted crane to lift the 90,000-pound turbine out of the water and, after each inspection, reattaching it to its seabed foundation.

In 2010 the Department of Energy provided a $10 million grant to the project. The grant also requires Ocean Renewable to undertake an environmental monitoring plan to determine the ecological impact of underwater turbine technology.

Another major investor in Ocean Renewable’s efforts is New York-based Caithness Development through its Caithness Energy division. That firm has a 30-year history of involvement in solar, wind and natural gas energy projects throughout the United States and is now involved in 35 operating power plants. It became an investor in the Eastport project three years ago.

Caithness also is immersed in construction of Caithness Shepherds Flats, a massive wind energy complex on 32,000 acres in north-central Oregon, immediately south of the Columbia River. Once completed it will be the nation’s largest wind farm. It is expected to generate more than 900 megawatts of electricity, about the same output as a typical nuclear reactor.

Caithness already is under contract to sell that wind-generated electricity to the Southern California Edison utility company.

In April, the Maine Public Utilities Commission directed three utilities — Central Maine Power, Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. and Maine Public Service Co. — to negotiate long-term contracts to buy the electricity that the TidGen project will produce.

The commission set the rate to be paid Ocean Renewable for tidal electricity at 21.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. That subsidized rate is about twice the rate charged to most Maine residential customers.

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