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The ocean is a tremendous bank of energy. Covering more than two-thirds of our planet, the amount of energy embodied in the ocean’s tides, currents, and waves, not to mention temperature and salinity gradients, could power the world—if we were able to commercialize the technology to harness its renewable power.

While technologies harnessing energy from tides and currents have been domestically discussed for decades, no project has ever reached commercial development, and been connected to the grid in the United States. In Eastport, Maine, however, that changed today with the launch of the Ocean Renewable Power Company (ORPC) TidGen Cobscook Bay tidal energy project. Harnessing the power of the massive tidal shifts in Cobscook Bay, an inlet connected to the much larger Bay of Fundy, the project is the first in the U.S. to receive a FERC license, negotiate a power purchase agreement, and install and operate a power-producing tidal generator.

As clean energy advocates, we are excited to highlight new, innovative projects that inject clean power and jobs into communities, deploy American ingenuity and know-how and utilize smart clean energy policies. The DOE invested $10 million in the project as part of its larger water power program that aims to better understand the environmental impacts that come with harnessing ocean energy, as well as refine, and make more cost-effective, the technologies that do so.

In addition to harnessing local sources of energy, the project apparently:

  • Harnessed local knowledge and workers to plan the project. Understanding of Maine’s tidal flows and currents, and marine geology was critical in project planning and implementation, and 50 and 70 local workers, including local fisherman facing underemployment from declining fish stocks, as well as others with a Maine maritime background were hired to help complete the project.
  • Sourced components from local manufacturers.  Beyond the locals working to plan and construct the project, the turbines and generators were also New England-sourced. Bristol, Rhode Island-based Hall Spars, a former yacht mast manufacturing company, supplied the turbines, while Massachusetts-based Comprehensive Power made the generator.

At the same time, as environmental advocates, NRDC wants to make sure the right approach is taken to harness the clean renewable energy of ocean tides, while protecting sensitive marine life and minimizing conflict with other uses of the ocean. 

In any ocean energy initiative, there are several elements that we expect to see in a properly developed project:  

  • Stakeholder outreach:  any new industrial ocean renewable energy projects must take into account the interest and expertise of stakeholders and citizens. 
  • Finding the right location:  the project location needs to be sufficient for power generation, while minimizing environmental impacts and avoiding conflicts with other ocean uses.
  • Safe technology:   the technology should be designed to protect birds, fish, ocean wildlife and the seafloor.  
  • Phased project development with robust monitoring and adaptation:  given the innovative nature of ocean energy technology, scaling up a project gradually, with monitoring of environmental impacts from the start, can help gather the knowledge needed to reduce such impacts and inform adaptation of the project design.  Based on available information, steps taken by OPRC to date--such as its use of slow moving, blunt blade turbines, its phased implementation plan and its commitment to ongoing monitoring--are encouraging. 

Ultimately, if the OPRC project is successful, it could pave the way for ocean tidal power to play a more prominent role in the nation’s renewable energy industry. Tidal power could theoretically generate 250 TWh of energy per year in the U.S., enough to provide power to tens of millions of homes.

With careful planning to protect the marine environment, test projects like these can pave the way for clean, renewable energy resources to meet this potential, while creating jobs, investment opportunities, and a multitude of environmental benefits.

Image Credit: Alex Mit/Shutterstock