12 years after splashy Eastport launch, company still isn't producing any tidal power
On a sunny day in 2010, a boat full of dignitaries watched as Ocean Renewable Power Co.’s team lowered a tidal turbine into the waters near Eastport.
“Gov. Baldacci, Congressman Michaud, Capt. McPherson, all of you that are here, either from here, or from away, I want to welcome you to Eastport, Maine, the Kitty Hawk of tidal energy,” said company CEO Chris Sauer, welcoming them.
The 50-foot turbine, with blades shaped like those on a push lawnmower, was touted as the leading edge of an ambitious tidal power project. Eastport is famous for its formidable tides, which average about 18 feet and can go as high as 26 feet.
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In a University of Maine video produced a year later in 2011, Sauer sounded even more optimistic about the potential for tidal power in the region, perhaps enough to supply 90,000 homes.
“In eight or 10 years, who knows, we are hoping that we may be able to get up to 80 or 100 megawatts of capacity in that area," Sauer said.
The demonstration turbine operated for eight months. ORPC did launch another larger unit near Eastport in 2012, and tied it into the electrical grid, which was a first for the nation. But that turbine came out of the water a year later, due to a failed generator and other complications.
Now, after 16 years of operating in Maine, and nearly $40 million in federal funds, the company still has no tidal turbines producing power in Eastport. Or anywhere else.
Company president John Ferland said there are market factors at play that have delayed some of its projects.
“Supply chain issues and increased cost of component issues that are affecting virtually every segment of the economy," Ferland said, "and it’s affected the time frame of our installation.”
Ferland acknowledged that the company still is not producing tidal power, 12 years after a ballyhooed launch and after receiving $39 million in federal funding. He says they've been using the money for innovation.
“That has financed a number of project activities, technology development, component development," he said. "We have created an industry that didn’t exist before.”
“It’s tough to break out with new technologies,” said Karl Rábago, a renewable energy consultant in Colorado.
Rábago said even as ORPC refines the designs of its turbines, other technologies such as solar panels and wind turbines are becoming ever more efficient and cost-effective. He said he's not really surprised it's taking this long to figure out tidal power.
"But I would also start expecting to see some applications that prove the concept pretty soon here," he said.
Still, Ferland remains confident that the company is poised for great growth. At TechPlace in Brunswick, he showed off ORPC’s testing facility, complete with a water tank it uses to test submerged generators. And there's electrical circuitry on the wall that will become part of a microgrid system planned for Eastport.
“It's a version of a what we're going to integrate into a subsystem," he said, "a small-scale power system that we’ll be installing in Eastport in the first quarter of 2023 as a stepping stone to the full size system.”
The Eastport microgrid will allow renewable power generated locally to provide the community with electricity should something happen to the long power line connecting the community to the mainland.
“And this kind of makes sense because we are an island literally in the middle of nowhere," said Eastport city manager Kate Devonshire. "I tell people, ‘Go east, find Canada, walk back 10 steps, you’ll find me.’"
Devonshire is working closely with Paige Atkinson of the Island Institute on the microgrid project. Atkinson said the system could include new facilities producing solar, wind and, of course, tidal power.
“We would love to have ORPC technology out in the water," Atkinson said. "We have a huge tidal exchange, so it seems like a perfect fit to tap in to their technology, and really utilize it here.”
But everyone agrees that the microgrid and tidal turbines are at least two years away.
Meanwhile, ORPC got a boost from a consortium of investors that ponied up $25 million last year, and Ferland has big plans for ORPC’s next decade, especially in remote regions.
The company has installed a river-driven turbine in Alaska, where it provided nearly half the power for a village of 70 people. That turbine is now out of the water for maintenance, but there are plans to expand the project next year. And Ferland said it provides a model for the company's expansion.
“We’ve entered the market in Alaska, northern Canada, and Chile, and we’ll literally have hundreds of units in those locations," he said. "That same market opportunity is in Africa, it’s in Asia, and so we anticipate growing as an international company, providing value to Maine as we’re doing it."
The company is now testing a smaller river-driven turbine system in Millinocket, and has just launched a demonstration river turbine in Manitoba.
And those tidal turbines generating power for Eastport? They could be coming in 2024.