Japan eager to learn from Maine tidal generation project

Posted Sept. 18, 2013, at 6:05 p.m.
Gayle Zydlewski (right), professor of marine science at the University of Maine, discusses the Western Passage with Kei Satoh (left), president of Hirosaki University in Japan, during a visit by a Japanese delegation to Eastport on Wednesday.
Tim Cox | BDN
Gayle Zydlewski (right), professor of marine science at the University of Maine, discusses the Western Passage with Kei Satoh (left), president of Hirosaki University in Japan, during a visit by a Japanese delegation to Eastport on Wednesday. Buy Photo
Bob Lewis, director of operations and planning and chief safety officer at Ocean Renewable Power Co.'s Eastport office, shows off components of the company's tidal generating equipment to visitors from Japan on Wednesday.
Tim Cox | BDN
Bob Lewis, director of operations and planning and chief safety officer at Ocean Renewable Power Co.'s Eastport office, shows off components of the company's tidal generating equipment to visitors from Japan on Wednesday. Buy Photo
Glen Marquis, manager of project development for Ocean Renewable Power Co., briefs members of a Japanese delegation at the company's Eastport office on Wednesday.
Tim Cox | BDN
Glen Marquis, manager of project development for Ocean Renewable Power Co., briefs members of a Japanese delegation at the company's Eastport office on Wednesday. Buy Photo

EASTPORT, Maine — A delegation of eight Japanese academics, joined by representatives of the University of Maine, visited Ocean Renewable Power Co. on Wednesday to be briefed on its pilot project that harnesses tides to produce electricity.

“These people have a lot for us to learn,” Kei Satoh, president of Hirosaki University, said Wednesday during the trip.

Ocean Renewable hosted a briefing and lunch for the group at its offices, then provided a tour to see the Western Passage and the components of its tidal turbine equipment, which are currently not deployed and stored at a boatyard.

Satoh acknowledged that there is considerable interest in renewable sources of energy in Japan, especially after the 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami, which crippled the Fukushima nuclear power plant. He said that other nuclear power plants were shut down, and Japan is now heavily reliant on fossil fuels to produce energy. He added that his country also has a long-term goal to move toward a carbon-free society.

These and other reasons are “forcing Japan to exploit renewable energy,” he said.

Satoh suggested that tidal energy has potential in northern Japan, where tidal flows are strong through the Tsugaru Strait.

By the same token, the region’s fishing industry must be considered, he noted. Fishing “is a very huge industry here,” said Satoh.

The university president lauded ORPC for its expertise and success in developing support in the community of Eastport and working with the area’s fishing industry. The Portland-based company is a “forerunner” both of tidal energy technology and building stakeholder buy-in to its project, he said.

Christopher Sauer, president and CEO of ORPC, agreed that the company has a lot to offer potential partners in Japan and elsewhere.

“They are early on in making the public aware [and working with the fishing industry on tidal energy],” Sauer said in a phone interview Wednesday.”They don’t really know how to pull all that together, and we do. … There’s interest on their part [in that kind of expertise that ORPC can provide].

Sauer views ORPC’s capability to communicate with stakeholders and gain their support as a “real growth” area for the company. The Japanese have a potential interest in that type of consulting service and also may be interested in the company’s technology, he said.

No other company has more experience deploying and retrieving tidal power generating equipment, said Sauer. Another area of expertise is ORPC’s capability to evaluate and assess potential sites for tidal generating projects, he noted.

The group was briefed at ORPC’s offices by project development manager Glen Marquis and Bob Lewis, director of operations and planning and chief safety officer.

Marquis referred to the synergistic relationship the company has developed with the fishing and maritime industries in Eastport.

“What’s really important here … is … establishing the support necessary for the industry,” he told the group — developing a supply chain and adapting skill sets for the fledgling industry.

“We’ve utilized a lot of local assets,” said Marquis, including trucking, boats and cranes. “That’s been a huge benefit to the company.”

Mary Repole, chairman of the Eastport City Council, welcomed the Japanese delegation and also praised ORPC and the University of Maine for their efforts to collaborate with the community. “They have made this cooperation so perfect,” she said, and helped guard the history, culture and environment of Eastport.

ORPC removed its tidal generator from the waters of Cobscook Bay this summer and continues research and development. It successfully supplied power to the electric grid — enough electricity to power about 25 homes.

The company is working on plans for phase two of its project, which would be the deployment of similar equipment in the Western Passage.

Marquis described the Western Passage waters as “much more attractive” in terms of their potential for producing tidal power on a commercial scale. He described the area as “very much like the Rocky Mountains underwater,” an environment that is very challenging yet has attractive tidal flows. Whereas the tidal turbine immersed in Cobscook Bay was at a depth of 100 feet, the Western Passage is “much deeper,” noted Marquis.

Since its target area in the Western Passage goes right up against the Canadian border, ORPC already has initiated a dialogue with Canadian officials, said Marquis, because the passage is used by Canadian vessels.

The company removed the turbine generator — resembling a rotary lawnmower with a generator in the middle — in July for a yearly inspection, maintenance and service. It sits at the facilities of The Boat School in Eastport.

It was the first commercial pilot project in North America that converted the power of the tides into electricity and connected to the energy grid.

The company has been learning from the yearlong project and is moving forward to phase two — the deployment of two more devices in 2014.

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