EASTPORT, Maine — About two hours is all one needs to witness the dramatic difference in the tidal waters surrounding Eastport, and like other coastal Maine communities, the difference between high tide and low tide can be sweeping.
At about 12:30 p.m. Monday, vast mudflats lay uncovered by the ebb tide. A family was gathered on the mudflats near the entrance to the town, apparently digging for clams.
Barely two hours later, those acres upon acres of mudflats were submerged by the incoming tide.
It is the energy behind the flowing tidal waters that Portland-based Ocean Renewable Power Co. seeks to harness and convert into electricity.
The company’s pilot project to accomplish that task has been underway about a year with a deployed a turbine generator in Cobscook Bay, to the west of Eastport, producing electricity as the incoming and outgoing tide pushed the foils of a device.
The company removed the turbine generator — resembling a rotary lawnmower with a generator in the middle — last month for a yearly inspection, maintenance and service. It sits at the facilities of The Boat School in Eastport, a wooden scaffold erected around it to make it accessible to workers.
It is the first commercial pilot project in North America that converts the power of the tides into electricity and connects to the energy grid. When operating, it generates enough electricity to provide power to about 25 homes.
The company has been learning from the yearlong project and is moving forward to phase two — the deployment of two more devices in 2014.
In fact, ORPC will seek to deploy another 18 turbine generators at two different sites around Eastport within five years, John Ferland, vice president of project development, said Monday. The process of obtaining the required federal and state licenses will begin later this year or in early 2014, he said.
The next generation of the company’s tidal turbine generators will be deployed in the Western Passage, the body of water east of Eastport and between the peninsula and Deer Island, Canada. The newer equipment will be in faster-moving, deeper water, and the generators will be tethered to the bottom, not anchored. In some areas the turbines will be stacked in a vertical configuration.
A notable difference, however, is that — unlike Cobscook Bay — the Western Passage is a busy commercial shipping lane and an active fishery also populated with whales, dolphins and seals.
ORPC is developing three products, all based on the technology of its turbine generator, according to Susy Kist, manager of marketing and communications. One is being developed for river sites, another for estuarine and tidal waters up to 150 feet deep, and a third for tidal and ocean locations over 150 feet deep. The company expects to deploy the latter two devices in combination in the Western Passage, said Kist. They are suited for deep water and irregular ocean bottoms, like portions of the Western Passage.
“The stacking technique allows us to achieve scale in output,” Kist said in an email, and the company is developing a prototype mooring system for testing in Cobscook Bay in 2014.
ORPC also has initiated an observation program to begin collecting baseline data regarding the use of the proposed Western Passage project area by marine mammals. The observation program was developed with the assistance of the New England Aquarium.
The company is focused on removing costs from the fledgling tidal energy industry, Ferland said. The goal is to achieve price parity by the year 2020.
“What we need to do is rapidly improve what we’re doing,” said Ferland.
The Maine Public Utilities Commission approved the project earlier for production of up to 5,000 kilowatts per hour of tidal power — enough to power about 2,000 homes. The commission set a rate of 21.5 cents per kilowatt-hour the first year, about 8 cents higher than the average.
“Clearly, it’s an area that has an incredible resource,” said Patrick Woodcock, director of the Governor’s Energy Office. “It has been exciting to see a Maine-based company … look to utilize that resource and also have jobs support it.”
Woodcock added, “We obviously have to look at the bottom line as we expand these companies … to make sure it works for them and the people of Maine.”
The tidal turbine generator generally has performed as intended, said Bob Lewis, director of operations and planning and chief safety officer at the Eastport office. The company’s target is to complete maintenance on the turbine generator and deploy it again by year’s end, he said Monday.
“We need to build a better mousetrap,” Lewis said acknowledging that the company continues to innovate. “And that mousetrap is still being developed.”
Jose Zayas, director of the wind and power technology office for the U.S. Department of Energy, which provided half the funding — $10 million — to get the project up and running said they are “still very excited.” The company will be adapting, incorporating what it learns into future technology and deployment strategies, he said Tuesday.
“We always saw this as a pilot phase,” he said.
Ferland pointed to the positive impact the company’s operations have on Eastport and beyond. While ORPC has been able to draw on the “critical skills” available from the port community, its economic footprint reaches far beyond. According to ORPC, five people are employed in Eastport and 18 at its headquarters in Portland, but its operations are responsible for another 77 jobs in Maine, as the company does business with vendors and suppliers in 13 of Maine’s 16 counties. It has invested more than $21 million into the Maine economy, including over $5 million spent in the Lubec and Eastport area.
The company’s technology has demonstrated it is compatible with the marine environment, said Ferland, although monitoring will continue. University of Maine scientists and others have been participating in the environmental monitoring.
The data the company is collecting in conjunction with its monitoring efforts are “creating new knowledge” of the Cobscook Bay environment, said Ferland. “It’s an exciting time for oceanography.”
Lewis described the company’s project as “the Kitty Hawk of tidal energy,” referring to the first successful airplane flight achieved by Wilbur and Orville Wright in Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903.
“I hope … in 15 or 20 years that we do lay the foundation for this industry,” said Lewis.
ORPC will hold an informational fair about its project 4:30-6 p.m. Aug. 27. The event will be held at Morrison Landing on Deep Cove Road in Eastport. Rain date is Aug 28.
Exhibits and displays will provide information about the Cobscook Bay tidal energy project, and staff will be on hand to answer questions about operations, technology development, environmental monitoring and more.
There is no admission charge for this all ages event, and no reservations are required. Refreshments will be served.
Free water shuttle service is available from Lubec. For information about the service or to make a reservation, call 221-6249.