Originally published in Castine Patriot, January 2, 2014
MMA approved for commercial-scale tidal energy testing
Sites in Castine Harbor, Bagaduce River
Maine Maritime Academy purchased a tidal energy test barge that will allow its Tidal Energy Development and Evaluation Center to test commercial tidal energy turbines. The 60 x 24-foot barge will likely be moored in Smith Cove.
by Anne Berleant
Maine Maritime Academy’s Tidal Energy Demonstration and Evaluation Center—better known as TEDEC—first began in 2006 as a 501c(3) nonprofit organization affiliated with MMA set up to demonstrate tidal energy turbines.
That was then; this is now. The academy merged TEDEC into its research and development department in November 2012; it’s now focused less on demonstration and more as a center for educating, training and testing.
“It became consistent with the goals of the school,” said Rick Armstrong, TEDEC’s executive director. “Timing is everything.”
Powered by a over half a million dollars in grants from Maine Technology Institute (MTI), Armstrong said TEDEC aims to become a first-class testing center, and has what it will take to do so.
The first essential piece toward that goal is permit exceptions granted to TEDEC by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to allow tidal energy turbine testing in four sites in Castine Harbor and the Bagaduce River
“We have the protocol for doing the testing legally. That’s a big deal,” Armstrong said. “Usually, you have to tell FERC exactly what the device is to get a permit. You can’t do that for testing.”
The four proposed test sites are:
Site #1: The MMA docks by the T/S State of Maine training vessel.
Site #2: Center of Castine Harbor directly off the MMA waterfront.
Site #3: Pre-Narrows Site, located three miles upriver from the Castine Harbor, in the Bagaduce River.
Site #4: Narrows Site, located in the Bagaduce River just within the border of the town of Penobscot.
The second essential piece was the recent purchase of an energy test barge, paid for by an MTI grant, from the Eastport Port Authority. The barge will allow TEDEC to test commercial size units, “not scale models, as we thought we would,” Armstrong said.
The test barge was first built to support placing a tidal power plant in Eastport Bay and was about to be dismantled. Again, timing was everything.
“We showed up the day before [Eastport Port Authority] showed up with the welding tool,” Armstrong said.
The 60 x 24-foot barge has two independent arms to hold a tidal test device. A tugboat will push the barge to simulate flow, said MMA associate professor of engineering Rich Kimball, who has been involved with TEDEC from its start. The barge will “likely be moored in Smith Cove.”
A tidal turbine is “essentially a wind turbine in the water,” Kimball said.
One of the biggest issues is survivability, he continued. “It’s one thing to perform tests, but if left in the water for a month, would [the turbine] survive?”
Being able to leave test turbines in the water is one of the advantages of the FERC permit exception, he continued.
TEDEC has already tested tidal turbines for commercial businesses using scale models, and the purchase of the test barge has more companies interested, including foreign companies.
“The better the facility, the more people will come,” Kimball said.
Test facilities are sought by aeronautics and power companies, most of which don’t have marine experience.
“Our experience as marine engineers is helpful,” Kimball said.
Maine Maritime Academy students will play a role in the tidal energy testing, from helming the tugboats that push the barge to studying the turbines effects on marine life.
Because TEDEC is a testing facility, it only has to notify the Department of Environmental Protection beforehand, not be granted a permit, and is “absolved” from requirements of the Endangered Species Act, according to Kimball.
The effect of tidal turbines on fish are “complicated,” said Kimball. “Schooling fish tend to figure it out.” University of Maine is conducting an impact study, which MMA marine biology students will be involved with. “The whole point of the study is to figure it out.”
As more companies come to TEDEC, incubator “spinoff” businesses may come to the local area. In 2010, a Blue Hill company, Maine Blue Stream Power, utilized TEDEC to test hydrokinetic turbines, generating about $40,000 to $50,000 into the local economy through contracted services.
“Once you get into the research [at MMA]…there there’s a kind of entrepreneurial hands-on spirit,” Armstrong said, that encourages incubator spinoffs.
Maine is one of only a few places in the United States where tidal energy is feasible, Armstrong said. Alaska and “a little in Washington state” are the others.
“Is it going to be more than 5 percent [of produced energy]? Probably not,” he said.
Kimball nodded his agreement. “It’s going to be a niche.”