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Harnessing the Gulf’s winds, tides for reliable energy independence

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Harnessing the Gulf’s winds, tides for reliable energy independence

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energy1In an era of volatile oil prices and growing concerns about future energy supplies, government and business alike are casting their eyes and their dollars toward the sea as a source of much needed energy.

From tidal power plants in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to proposed offshore wind farms from Maine to Massachusetts, the latent energy-producing possibilities from the Gulf of Maine have become the focus of state and provincial interest. Those who can tap that energy may find substantial rewards.

According to Professor Habib Dagher, director of the Advanced Structures and Composites Laboratory at the University of Maine, the Gulf of Maine contains 100 gigawatts (GW) of wind energy potential, equivalent to approximately 10 percent of the United States’ energy needs for a year.

“You can think of the winds off the coast of Maine as a seasonal crop that can help heat the state,” Dagher said.

Walter Musial, senior engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratories in Golden, Colorado, also thinks the Gulf of Maine (GOM) is capable of supplying New England’s electricity needs in the future.

In a presentation at the Power of the Gulf conference in Northport, Maine, in June, he noted it is the 22 densely populated states on the east, west and Gulf of Mexico coasts which use 78 percent of the 3,500 TW hours of electricity consumed each year in the U.S.

A kilowatt (KW) is 1 thousand watts; a megawatt (MW) is 1 million watts; a gigawatt (GW) is 1 billion watts; a terawatt (TW) is 1 trillion watts. To put these figures in perspective, an incandescent lightbulb consumes between 25 to 100 watts of electrical energy and compact fluorescent bulbs consume between 5 to 30 watts. According to the Maine Public Utilities Commission, the average Maine household consumes 6,000 KW hours of electricity each year. A KW hour is 1,000 watts consumed per hour. The six New England states generally use approximately 27,000 MW per day in the summer months, when air conditioner use is prevalent.

Drawing energy from the ocean which borders these states makes logical sense, Musial said. “They can’t be served by land-based renewable energy sources alone. We need to find ways to generate energy where people live,” he explained.

Wind Power
Offshore wind farms in the GOM could be one way to meet that need.

Musial said offshore wind farms benefit from greater and more constant wind velocities and are far enough from shore that many people say they have little aesthetic impact on coastal landowners, although a Massachusetts project has generated much opposition for its visibility. He adds they can be located near demand centers, such as Portland or Boston.

“You can build them big,” he said. “You can’t ship the big wind turbine towers on land because they won’t fit [in one piece] under the interstate system’s bridges.”

At 60 to 80 meters (197 to 262 feet) of water depth in the Gulf of Maine, the mean wind speeds are 21 miles per hour (MPH) or more than 9.5 meters per second, a velocity that Musial called “outstanding.” Unlike the offshore turbines, most current commercial turbine models, such as those produced by Siemans of Germany or Vestas of Denmark, are designed for shallow water depths where they are fixed to the seabed.

Offshore turbines must float above deep waters, but also must have a system that keeps them anchored in one place in order to withstand storms. Currently one of the world’s deepwater offshore systems, called the Talisman Field, operates in Scotland. Its turbines are the largest in the world, with individual wind blades of 61.5 meters (201 feet) in length.

No offshore wind towers currently pull power from the sky in the GOM. The 41 existing wind turbines that feed electricity to Nova Scotia Power are all land-based. The Nova Scotia Department of Energy recently set up a new online wind atlas developed with the University of Moncton and Nova Scotia Community College, which shows that some of the province’s peninsulas in the Gulf have definite wind energy potential.

The maps, drawing on Google satellite images, show wind speeds based on velocity at 30, 50 and 80 meters (32, 54 and 87 yards) above ground. The department predicts the number of wind turbines in the province will grow to more than 300 by the year 2013, although it is unclear if any of those new facilities will be offshore.

In Maine this past February the Governor’s Task Force on Wind Power Development released its report on wind power potential for the state. The task force, which included both land and state waters in its study, concluded the state should aim to generate at least 2,000 MW of electricity from wind power by 2015 and 3,000 MW by 2020. By 2020, 300 MW of that electricity should be drawn from offshore wind projects.

Currently the state has several land wind farms installed or in the construction stages, including Mars Hill (28 turbines generating 42 MW of electricity), Kibby Mountain (44 turbines potentially generating 130 MW) and Stetson Ridge (potentially generating 57 MW).

Former independent governor Angus King jumped into the wind world when he founded Independence Wind in 2007. In 2008 King said in a speech at Bowdoin College that the Gulf could be a “Saudi Arabia of wind” in terms of its potential for power generation. He called for a Manhattan Project-style endeavor to create a $15 billion network of offshore wind turbines that would feed into the New England grid system.

In September, a Massachusetts-based company called Blue H came calling in Maine with plans for an offshore wind farm employing 90 turbines that could produce up to 450 MW of electricity, although the company identified no specific Maine site. Blue H set up a successful demonstration turbine in waters off Italy and plans to begin construction of a full-scale project there in 2009.


[ download pdf of above map ]

The company also has filed an application with the U.S. Minerals Management Service to lease submerged Massachusetts lands, approximately 23 miles (37 km) from Martha’s Vineyard and 45 miles (72 km) from New Bedford, for a similar demonstration project. The company says, if successful, the facility would include 120 turbines generating more than 400 MW of electricity.

The Massachusetts wind project that has generated years of controversy, while not in the Gulf of Maine, does illustrate the difficulties of siting large-scale energy facilities, even non-polluting ones, within sight of the shore.

Energy Management Inc., a Boston-based company, announced its plans in 2001 to construct a wind farm called Cape Wind comprised of 130 turbines located between four and 11 miles off the Cape Cod coast in federal waters. The towers will be 258 feet tall (78.6 meters) from the water surface to the center of the blades. The blades will reach 440 feet (146.6 meters) above the water. The company says the proposed wind farm would produce an average of 170 MW of electricity. The power would be transported through eight miles (12.8 km) of transmission cable coming ashore at West Yarmouth.

Objections to the proposed wind farm began in 2001 and have not ebbed since. Homeowners on Nantucket and along the southern shore of Cape Cod, including Senator Ted Kennedy, objected to the visual impacts of the turbines, the effect on fishing, navigation and the undersea environment, possible pollution from the turbines themselves and a number of other potential impacts.

Culminating many years of legal wrangling, the final decision on the company’s environmental impact statement (EIS), which is required under the federal National Environmental Protection Act, was due by the end of 2008.

energy2Tidal Power
Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia share more than a penchant for fog. They border on the Bay of Fundy, a great embayment through which more than 115 billion tons of water flows each day.

The Bay of Fundy tidal range can reach 50 feet (15.2 meters) at its eastern edge since the bay is generally U-shaped and tapers significantly near its northern terminus. The incoming tide gains greater strength at it moves inward, resulting in a renowned tidal bore, or standing wave, found in the Minas Basin.

A blast of many billion gallons of fast-moving water holds a lot of energy, a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed in Maine or the provinces. Back in 1982, a small tidal dam was built in Annapolis, Nova Scotia, to capture some of the Bay’s tidal energy. The mechanism is charmingly low-tech.

The dam lies across the tidal marsh. On the high tide the gates of the dam close to impound the water. Vents at the bottom of the dam release the water past turbines that turn to generate electricity. Even after more than two decades, the Annapolis turbine still generates 20 MW of electricity per year, enough to power approximately 4,500 homes.

During the past two decades, tidal energy devices have advanced considerably in design and efficiency. The device of the moment is a tidal turbine. A tidal turbine is much like a windmill.

The moving tide rotates a series of blades, the blades then spin a generator that produces electricity. Tidal turbines can be arrayed underwater in rows, similar to turbines in a terrestrial wind farm. The key requirement, however, is a strong coastal current running at least four knots, according to Mark Cote, chairman of the Maine Maritime Academy (MMA) engineering department, located in Castine, Maine.

In 2007 the MMA filed an application with the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for a tidal energy device evaluation center on its campus. MMA serves as the host institution for a consortium of public agencies and three private companies – Maine-based Cianbro Corporation, Marinus Power and OceanWorks International. The proposed center would take advantage of the vigorous tides of the Bagaduce River to test new tidal energy equipment.

Cote said tidal energy is absolutely suited to Maine and to the school’s engineering program.

“The center would create a facility to test and evaluate tidal energy devices designed by U.S. and international companies,” he said. “MMA students and faculty would be involved in research and educational opportunities at the proposed center, which is intended to facilitate and advance development of tidal energy.” One of the center’s goals is to generate electricity for the campus and even send excess power to the local power grid.

In the Maritime provinces, Nova Scotia has vowed to draw nearly 20 percent of the province’s electricity supply from renewable sources by 2013. In 2008, Clean Current, Nova Scotia Power and Minas Basin Power and Pulp Company began working jointly on a project to demonstrate tidal devices in the Bay of Fundy. Minas Basin Pulp and Power Corporation is constructing the infrastructure that would allow all the tidal turbines to connect to the existing power grid.

Funds for the project come from a $4.7 million (Canadian) grant from the Nova Scotian Ecotrust for Clean Air and Climate Change program, a $3 million loan from EnCana Corporation’s Environmental Innovation Fund and contributions from each of the successful developers. Nova Scotia’s Department of the Environment is also providing $300,000 for environmental and permitting work.

In May of this year, New Brunswick offered leases on 11 submerged land sites in the Bay of Fundy to businesses and organizations that would conduct up to two years of research on the sites’ tidal energy potential. The leases include Head Harbour Passage and Western Passage in Passamaquoddy Bay, an area near Chignecto Bay and one off Cape Spencer near Saint John.

Irving Oil, in partnership with the Huntsman Marine Science Center, won the rights to the sites. Currently the public-private partnership is testing the strength of the daily tidal currents through an array of floating sampling devices.

Several private companies have announced their intentions to locate tidal turbines in Maine and New Hampshire tidal waters. Maine Tidal Energy Company, a subsidiary of Oceana Energy of Washington, D.C., received a preliminary permit from FERC in June to study developing a tidal power project in the Kennebec River just north of Bath.

In 2007, FERC gave the company permission to spend three years studying sites on the Penobscot River near Bucksport and Verona Island to determine if the area is suitable for an array of submerged tidal generators.

Ocean Renewable Power Company (ORPC), a Miami, Florida firm, tested its pilot tidal turbines at two locations in Eastport this spring. Working with students at the Washington County Community College Marine Technology Center, company president Chris Sauer and his team created a demonstration turbine generator unit that hangs 300 feet down into the water column from a stationary barge.

The $1.2 million device, (U.S.) which can generate 32 KW in a 6-knot tidal current, was completed and installed in December, 2007. In April it began producing limited electrical power. The company predicts the turbines eventually will send 250 KW into the local power grid.

In a presentation at the Power of the Gulf conference Sauer noted, “Expertise in maritime trades is key to success [of the company]. We have been blown away by the capabilities of the people in Washington County. Initiatives [like his project] are coming and with the high price of oil, they are coming even sooner."

The New Hampshire Tidal Energy Company, also owned by Oceana Energy, received its preliminary permit from FERC in 2007 to study the potential for tidal power in the Piscataqua River, shared by Maine and New Hampshire. A rival company, the Underwater Electric Kite (UEK) Corporation, plans to do the same. Each company predicts that their respective turbines placed appropriately in the Piscataqua River could generate between 40 to 100 MW of power.

Offshore Oil and Gas
And of course, there’s always the traditional source of energy, oil and natural gas. The specter has once again raised its head of opening the Gulf of Maine, specifically Georges Bank which is shared by the U.S. and Canada, to oil and gas exploration.

Offshore oil and gas were hot topics in New England and the Maritimes back in the 1970s and 1980s. Late in 1979, 13 oil companies paid more than $816 million (U.S.) for 5-year leases to drill for oil and gas approximately 130 to 170 miles ( 209 to 273 km) off Cape Cod. Ultimately only five companies actually drilled eight wells in the Georges Bank area.

In 1982 Shell and Tenneco struck the same natural gas pocket about 145 miles (233 km) out to sea, but later that year the oil companies all announced they were pulling out of Georges Bank saying none of the exploratory wells found significant amounts of oil.

In 1983, two other oil companies said they would return to Georges Bank to drill wells to tap the natural gas deposits. The Conservation Law Foundation filed suit in federal court to prevent a second 5-year lease sale. The organization won the case. President Reagan later issued an executive order banning further outer continental shelf lease sales. Congress had previously passed a Congressional ban on offshore oil exploration in the form of a rider in the annual federal appropriations bill.

Flash forward to 2008. President Bush lifted Reagan’s executive order in July. Congress lifted its 27-year ban when it passed the federal appropriations bill in September. Currently both Canada and the United States have agreed to a moratorium on Georges Bank exploration until 2012.

The U.S. energy bill passed in September by the House and Senate included a moratorium on oil and gas exploration on Georges Bank while opening other sections of the Atlantic coast to drilling.

The Canadian and Nova Scotian moratorium legislation requires provincial and federal governments to decide by 2010 whether another extensive review process is necessary to assess the status of Georges Bank before deciding on whether to rescind or continue the moratorium.

Reports from Canada’s federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans show haddock stocks on Georges Bank have rebounded from an absolute low in the early 1990s to a 50-year high. The relative strength of the high-value stocks could influence the moratorium decision-making process.

The question that can’t be answered definitively by any players on either side of the international boundary is just how much oil lies in the Gulf of Maine and whether it exists in easily accessible reservoirs. The U.S. uses approximately 6.6 billion barrels of oil each year, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), part of the federal Department of Energy. Identified reserves of oil within the U.S. total 21 billion barrels which lie within the onshore and offshore areas of Texas, Alaska, California and Louisiana.

The U.S. Minerals Management Service states there are at least 18 billion barrels of oil “reserves” waiting to be recovered from submerged lands currently off-limits to exploration (the U.S. east coast, western side of Florida, and northwest coast). The U.S. Geological Survey says there are approximately 18 billion barrels of “undiscovered conventionally recoverable resources” in the off-limits areas of the outer continental shelf.

The two terms mean different things. “Reserves” are oil deposits that have actually been found; “resources” means geological structures where oil is likely to be found.

A report issued in 2007 by the EIA said that “access to the Pacific, Atlantic, and eastern Gulf regions would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030. Leasing would begin no sooner than 2012, and production would not be expected to start before 2017.”

Many experts still debate whether the global moment of peak oil has come and gone. Coal, oil and natural gas are finite in quantity and thus we can expect the price paid for their use to increase, as it has done in the past year. Yet the energy that may be harnessed from the ocean’s tides and winds is not finite.

Experts all agree it seems inevitable that as the cost of traditional energy grows, more and more businesses and governments will turn entrepreneurial eyes to the energy potential of the Gulf of Maine.

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