Waves of Change: Making a Plan for Renewable Energy

Robin Just

Perry Marine & Construction workers lower the second of four turbines into place in ORPC's TidGen™ turbine generator unit (TGU) which will be installed at ORPC's Cobscook Bay project site in August. Photo courtesy of ORPC.

Ceaseless, predictable, powerful – the tide is all of these things. We may be adding “illuminating” to that list as our nation’s first grid-connected commercial tidal energy project gets underway off the coast of Maine and begins to light up homes sometime in August. As part of a renewable energy plan, tidal energy may hold great promise for a cleaner energy future. It’s a relatively simple process to convert the kinetic energy of tides into power for the grid (not much different from a wind turbine, really) – but the process of siting and building tidal energy farms in our coastal waters is much more complex.

Cobscook Bay off Eastport, Maine may be one of the most ideal spots in the US for tidal energy. It sits at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy – which has the most extreme tidal fluctuations in the world (an average of 24 feet). It also enjoys a high level of biodiversity – with an abundance of migratory shorebirds and waterfowl, as well as finfish, lobsters, scallops, and clams. Critically endangered North Atlantic right whales use the area. Tourism, fishing, and aquaculture are important parts of the economy here. There are many stakeholders involved in an area where so many depend on the ocean for their livelihoods as well as for tourism and recreation.

The Cobscook Bay Tidal Energy Project from the Ocean Renewable Power Company (ORPC) has been ramping up since 2006. The company is set to deploy its first turbine in mid-August, and hopes to add several more in the coming decade.

In general, the process to site and build a tidal energy project involves the input and coordination of several federal, state, and local government agencies working with numerous existing energy production and environmental laws, as well integrating input from citizen and environmental groups, the energy industry, fishermen, and other stakeholders. Maine recently streamlined the process for developing tidal energy projects, and is now the only state on the East Coast with a formal agreement with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to ensure federal and state coordination in the regulation of this new industry. But the process is still quite involved.

Complicated, right? Well, if this small commercial project in Eastport and others like it are successful, tidal energy is likely to grow in our coastal waters, and along with it, the challenges of planning for it. Recent U.S. Department of Energy reports find that ocean current power resources could potentially provide up to 250 terawatt-hours of electricity per year nationally (our current demand is around 4,000 terawatt-hours of electricity per year). Given the likelihood that ocean energy production is going to grow rapidly and dramatically, we need a better way through the process of planning for new energy development while protecting our valuable ocean resources and traditional uses.

The development in Eastport, Maine might provide some useful lessons in how to approach a project like this at a community level, using the principles of Regional Ocean Planning.

Chris Gardner, Executive Director of the Eastport Port Authority, said ORPC began working with the Port Authority and with local stakeholders from the very beginning of the process in 2006. The Port Authority saw the project as potentially benefitting the community economically, but were “very watchful about how they did their business and if they did it the right way” said Gardner. Fishermen were especially concerned about the project – worried that structures or construction activity would interfere with fishing grounds. According to Gardner, the company took the approach that it was ORPC’s own “responsibility to prove their case.”

John Ferland, ORPC Vice President, talked to me about what the company did to garner community support and ease concerns about tidal energy. First and foremost, he emphasized the importance of communicating with local residents and getting them involved as much as possible. “We have had so many meetings over the last several years. For a while there were a couple of community style meetings a year, and all sorts of private interactions and group meetings in between – city council meetings, selectmen, lots of informal meetings” said Ferland. “The State of Maine Ocean Energy Task Force cited ORPC’s efforts as a model for other ocean energy developers to follow,” he added.

The Cobscook Bay Resource Center facilitated a series of stakeholder and community meetings, as well as provided detailed information about the project on their website. (There is a really interesting clip from the PBS “Sustainable Maine” video with interviews of many of the people involved in and potentially affected by the project, as well as footage of how the turbines will work.)

As a result of conversations with local fishermen, ORPC was able to site the project in an area that wouldn’t impede their fishing. As one fisherman said in the PBS video, “You gotta be careful of what goes where.” In Cobscook Bay, Ferland said, tidal energy is ideal in places that are not important to fishing due to the nature of the ocean bottom and the high currents.

In addition to meeting with stakeholders, ORPC has been working with the University of Maine School of Marine Sciences on fisheries concerns, and with the New England Aquarium to minimize future potential impacts on marine mammals. Whenever possible, said Ferland, they prefer to hire local citizens as employees, local subcontractors as service providers, and have trained local residents as certified marine mammal monitors as part of the NOAA NMFS-required data gathering effort.

Any major human activity in our oceans and coastal waters is going to involve making some decisions about the best place for certain uses. Regional Ocean Planning is the process of defining these uses and potential conflicts, and seeking the optimal path of sustainable development and resource protection. Using the principles of ecosystem-based management, gathering and sharing the best possible data about ocean uses and impacts, and making sure every stakeholder has a say in the process – that’s Regional Ocean Planning in a nutshell.

The phrase I heard over and over as I was researching tidal energy in the Gulf of Maine was, “It’s a good idea, as long as it’s done right.” Regional Ocean Planning can be used to help manage ocean uses the right way – by involving stakeholders at the very beginning of a project, and keeping them engaged throughout, by examining the social, economic, and environmental effects of the project, by filling the data gaps needed to make science-based decisions, and by making the process adaptive so that changes can be made as new information comes in.

The current project in Cobscook Bay might be the beginning of major tidal energy development in the Gulf of Maine. The process of planning and implementation will get more complicated as the scale gets bigger – there will be more stakeholders involved, more potential environmental impacts, and more activities in the water. It is important to have a process that works for everyone.

We all have a lot to gain from the full implementation of the National Ocean Policy. For more information about the need for Regional Ocean Planning check out these blogs about sea level rise, coastal pollution, and protecting endangered whales from ship strikes.

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