Maine company looks to tidal power as renewable energy’s next generation

Good News Notes:

With much of New England’s attention on offshore wind, a Maine company hopes to put itself on the map with tidal energy.

Portland, Maine-based Ocean Renewable Power Company recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the city of Eastport on a five-year plan to develop a $10 million microgrid primarily powered by tidal generation.

The project will be an opportunity for the small port city to expand its workforce and build its appeal for younger residents. It’s also an opportunity for ORPC to expand its reach as the company’s leaders try to find a viable market for ocean- and river-based generation in an industry largely dominated by solar and wind.

ORPC has been working to develop marine electricity generation technology since 2004 and has since expanded its offices internationally, including to Montreal and Dublin and soon in Chile. The company’s river-based generation technology is currently providing power to a remote Alaska community.

While tidal and river energy haven’t reached the same level of visibility as other renewable sources, supporters say these and related resources like wave and ocean current energy — collectively called marine and hydrokinetic resources — are at a similar point now to where solar and wind were a decade ago. They say the predictability of tides and currents in places like the Western Passage, the inlet on which Eastport is located, makes these resources promising as governments aim to create a resilient grid.

‘We’re entering a new phase,’ said John Ferland, ORPC’s president, ‘a decade where there’s more renewables coming online, there’s greater policy support for all kinds of renewables.’ ORPC has developed underwater systems that use turbines positioned parallel to the ocean floor and perpendicular to the current to generate electricity. They’re submerged at depths that allow boats to pass above.

Since last year, the company’s river-based generator, the RivGen, has been providing power for Igiugig, a remote village on the Kvichak River in southwestern Alaska. The village, which isn’t connected to the electric grid, has traditionally relied on imported diesel for its power. But according to ORPC, that diesel use will decrease 90% once a second RivGen, as well as storage and smart grid controls, are added this year and next year. The diesel generators will be a backup to the two river generators.

Eastport, on the other hand, is connected to the grid, but its location at the end of an aging distribution network and near a valuable tidal resource makes it well-suited for the new project, Ferland said. (Tidal and river energy have several differences, but both involve drawing energy from moving currents.)

For Eastport’s new city manager, Thomas Hoskins, the draw is economic and environmental. The city of about 1,300 year-round residents (three times that many in the summer), about 180 miles northeast of Portland, hasn’t had a strong manufacturing base for more than 20 years, he said.

Hoskins wants to make the city more appealing for younger residents by offering work — this project should include about 100 jobs, and Hoskins has other major projects planned for the city — and the promise of sustainability. ‘You are now talking to a whole new generation of folks,’ he said of the millennials he’d like to see come to Eastport. They tend to be particularly focused on environmental issues.

With the pandemic now making rural life more appealing for some big-city residents, Hoskins sees a chance to show Eastport’s potential as a permanent destination. The local airport is also planned for an upgrade, including offering commercial flights, which will make the city more accessible.”

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