There are plenty of good reasons to wean our society off of non-renewable, fossil fuels. But it’s difficult to get everybody on the same page. Since the 1970s, we’ve heard lip service from Big Oil about how they are investing heavily into solar and wind energy — and a breakthrough is “just ten years away”.
What if that breakthrough wasn’t on land at all, but underwater? The surging forces of rivers, ocean waves, and the tides themselves have the ability to transform our energy future.
Ocean Renewable Power Company (ORPC) is constructing a $21 million commercial tidal power plant — the first in the United States. Located off the coast of Eastport, Maine — where the tidal currents cause a daily swelling of over 12 feet —- the site is slated to be operational this week with continuous power flowing by Labor Day.
Using a turbine system for electricity generation is a well-known mechanism. Steam-powered turbines turn around the world — the key differentiator being what do you use to heat the water to make the steam. Coal? Nuclear fission? Here it’s the rhythmic and reliable rising and falling of the tides.
Unlike solar and wind — where you can have a cloudy or windless day — the Moon is always doing its gravitational dance with the Earth; thus we can always count on the tides. According to ORPC President, Ray Sauer, as reported by Discovery News:
“[The turbine blades] are similar to an airplane wing. Water moves over the foil and gives it lift, which rotates the turbine that turns a shaft and generates electricity.
We’ve proven that the power system works and the challenge is how do we make it more efficient and reduce costs.”
Sauer and his company will stay busy into the near future. Besides dealing with seasonal bad weather and the highly corrosive element of water itself, ORPC has permits to install another 20 turbine units in the area near Eastport.
Though still a relatively expensive source of energy (the Maine public utility is helping to subsidize the development of the underwater grid), tidal power is poised to be a game changer for population centers near the ocean in the coming decade. In fact, ORPC and others are developing smaller systems which can work in rivers as well.
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