A Renewable Energy Postcard from Eastport Maine

04.12.2010 | HMMH |

by Steve Barrett

The heyday of Eastport Maine was when 13 sardine factories were processing the daily catch and shipping it by boat to city centers in Portland and Boston.  That was 13 decades ago.  (Not a very lucky number.) Today, the remnants of a prosperous past are visible in the stately Victorian homes and brick-lined Main Street with mostly empty store fronts.  Today, about 1,500 people call Eastport home.  The only way to make a living here is to have multiple jobs and at least one of those is likely to involve the ocean.  However, there is hope for a future in Eastport and most everyone hopes that Eastport’s future lies in tidal electricity generation.

Eastport Maine

The tides and currents around Eastport are legendary.  Eastport sits on a peninsula of land bounded by Cobscook Bay to the south, the mouth of the St. Croix River (and boundary with Canada) to the north, and Campobello Island and Atlantic Ocean to the east.  The old sow whirlpool, the largest whirlpool in the western hemisphere, is located off Eastport. And Ocean Renewable Power Company (OPRC), a tidal energy start-up company from downstate in Portland, thinks that there is limitless energy in these waterways.

The number one specials board at the Happy Crab says “Seafood Roll and Seafood Chowder.”  Chris Sauer, President of ORPC, recommends it highly and I don’t ask questions.  As the only restaurant (and watering hole) in town, the Happy Crab is the center of all social life in Eastport, and Chris has eaten many meals at the Crab.  Chris has become a local fixture in Eastport despite never visiting until tidal energy became his area of expertise five years ago.  Now everyone knows Chris.  And on this day, the day after “launching” the largest tidal energy system ever deployed in the US in Cobscook Bay in Eastport, the locals come into the Crab and offer congratulations to Chris.

But leading a new technology company start-up is one part glory to ten parts headache.  The “launching” did not occur as planned the previous day due to a technical glitch in the turbine generator requiring it to be towed from the Eastport waterfront back to the Maine Boat School, ORPC’s surrogate marine shop.  ORPC hopes that the problem will be fixed in the next month.  Permits allowing for the deployment stipulated that the turbine could not spin when endangered Atlantic Salmon smolts might be navigating the waterway in May and June so the delay prompted a phone summit with federal and state fisheries agency representatives to consider the implications.

The beta unit, as the current tide engine is referred to, is remarkable in its simplicity.  A special barge was constructed to lift and drop the generator and foils (not blades) in and out of the water.  The barge is equipped with special equipment for measuring the performance of the contraption and the electricity it produces.  It includes an on-board inverter that converts the electricity from DC to AC before storing it in large batteries that will be transported to the US Coast Guard Station to heat the rescue boat that must be warm and ready to head seaward at a moments notice 24-7.  The whole contraption looks like a push mower.

So what’s a guy from HMMH doing in Eastport Maine eating seafood chowder and observing the ups and downs of a start-up tidal technology company?  Well, you may recall that a flagship project of our new clean energy practices is working with the Town of Edgartown Massachusetts on a tidal energy project proposed between the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.  The technology that Edgartown is proposing is the Gorvlov Helical Turbine after which ORPC has fashioned its beta model.  Data collected in Eastport on technology performance and environmental impacts can be used by Edgartown as it pursues a license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to generate tidal energy in off its east coast.  And we are in the early stages of bringing the old lawn mower and custom barge down for testing in Massachusetts. 

A Sense of Scale