EASTPORT, Maine — There’s a new tidal energy project in town, or at least a new version of an old project that dates from the era of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
As something of a geographic anomaly, the Bay of Fundy, which separates Down East Maine from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, generates the highest vertical tides in the world. Hydrology studies have shown there are tidal variations of more than 50 feet in some places and at some times of the year. In a single 12-hour tide cycle, 115 billion tons of seawater flow in and out of the bay, which is more than the combined flow of all the freshwater rivers in the world.
That’s a lot of energy, a reality that wasn’t lost on FDR, whose family’s summer compound on New Brunswick’s Campobello Island fronted Passamaquoddy Bay, which has a twice-a-day tidal flow of 70 billion cubic feet and tidal variations of as much as 20 feet. As a candidate for vice president in 1920, Roosevelt first proposed a massive public works project that would harness that tidal energy to produce electricity. Later, as president, he was able to secure $7 million in federal funding for a project estimated to cost $36 million.
Known locally as the “Quoddy Dam Project,” it was less than half-completed before being abandoned in 1936 for reasons grounded in a lack of investors and the objections of the era’s existing electrical utilities, which feared the project would generate electricity at rates lower than their own.
Despite that Depression-era false start, the potential for converting tidal energy into electricity persists, as do efforts to harness it. For eight years, Portland-based Ocean Renewable Power Co. has been working out of Eastport and Cobscook Bay while conceptualizing, fabricating, testing and refining what has evolved into a 90,000-pound, 98-foot turbine. It was submerged in Cobscook Bay in August at a depth of 82 feet for a year of testing that is being underwritten by the U.S. Department of Energy as part of a $10 million grant.
Should a year of field testing ORPC’s first TidGen unit prove the turbine to be technologically viable and environmentally benign, four identical turbines are expected to be phased into use over the next few years. Collectively, they are expected to harness the force of the region’s iconic tides to generate as much as 4 megawatts of power, enough electricity to power 1,000 homes.
Now, in the shadows of that project, is a tidal energy concept first proposed to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2009 by Tidewalker Associates, an entity created in 2005 by Normand Laberge of Trescott. He envisions constructing a 1,200-foot barrage, or small dam, that would capture and use as a powerhouse energy source the tide that flows into and out of Half Moon Cove, which separates Eastport from Perry and the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy Indian Reservation.
The 950-acre surface area of the cove was created when the existing Route 190 causeway that links the reservation to Eastport was built as part of the infrastructure for FDR’s tidal power project. The barrage that Laberge is proposing would extend across the Bar Harbor passage into the cove from the terminus of Toll Bridge Road in Eastport to the terminus of Old Eastport Road in Perry.
The Half Moon Cove Tidal Barrage project would be situated at the same latitude as the Annapolis Royal Generating Station in Nova Scotia. For more than 20 years, its 18-megawatt powerhouse has used the tidal waters that flow into and out of the Annapolis River as a no-cost fuel source.
“The Half Moon Cove project isn’t on a river and wouldn’t create a reservoir,” Laberge said Thursday. “It doesn’t change the environment, and it can be engineered so it doesn’t affect the intertidal zone, so clamming wouldn’t be affected. Scallops could still be harvested by divers or by small draggers.”
There is no shortage of regulatory hoops and environmental impact studies between Laberge’s concept and federal and state approval. If the project as envisioned were to be built today, Laberge estimates it would cost as much as $50 million and have a generating capacity of 9 megawatts, more than twice the output of ORPC’s initial generating project. Where that money would come from remains an unknown, he said.
Laberge recently filed with FERC a pre-application document that outlines the specifics of the proposed tidal dam project, as well as a notice of intent to seek a license to pursue the project. That document is being circulated among stakeholders, who Laberge said include fishermen who work the cove, owners of properties that front Half Moon Cove, and the communities of Eastport, Perry and Pleasant Point. The Passamaquoddy Tribe owns the most property on the cove, said Laberge, who now works as the tribe’s energy director.
“Eventually the tribe will decide by referendum if it wants to invest in the project,” Laberge said Thursday. “I went to the tribe in 2006 to see if they wanted to get involved, but at that point they were focused on an LNG [liquified natural gas] terminal and left it at ‘keep us informed.’ At this point the tribe’s energy efforts are directed toward wind.”
Between now and year’s end, Laberge will be fielding public comment on the project from both government entities and other interested parties. His timeline calls for a public scoping session in mid-November, which may include a site visit. Environmental and cultural resources impact studies would take place between March and December 2013. A draft license application would be prepared, circulated and discussed in 2014 before a final application is submitted to FERC in 2014.
Laberge is scheduled to meet Monday with Bob Peacock, the chairman of the Eastport City Council, to discuss the proposed project. Peacock’s shorefront home on Toll Bridge Road is adjacent to the proposed barrage.
“I have a lot of questions,” Peacock said Friday. “I need to better understand what would be the benefits to the community.”