Commercial tidal power a long way off, timeline suggests


OpenHydro turbine deployed and wrecked in 2009

My review of events in the development of Fundy tidal power since 2008 reveals that politicians and developers have consistently underestimated the challenges involved in converting the world’s highest tides into affordable electricity.

I’ve published a year-by-year listing of events on my tidal timeline page.

Here are a few highlights beginning the month after the Irish company, OpenHydro, and its partner, Nova Scotia Power, installed the first turbine in November, 2009. It would be more than a year before the public learned the extent of this failure:

Dec. 2009: OpenHydro says its turbine in the Minas Passage is working the way it was designed to. Nick Murphy, the company’s commercial manager, tells a conference in Halifax, “It was designed to withstand the currents and that’s the nice thing about tidal energy, the forces are very predictable.” The Herald quotes Nova Scotia Power executive Rick Janega as saying that if the testing continues to go well, NSP could put 200 to 300 turbines in the Bay of Fundy, enough to generate 15 per cent of Nova Scotia’s electricity.

But a few months later, word leaks out about problems:

March 2010: The Herald reports that OpenHydro lost contact with sensors on its turbine in the Minas Passage only seven days after it was put in the water…Divers can’t fix the problem because of strong currents and murky water.

June 2010: Nova Scotia Power announces two large blades…have broken off the underwater turbine…The turbine will have to be pulled from the water a year earlier than scheduled.

Nov. 2010: Premier Dexter says tidal power could be flowing into Nova Scotia homes as early as the end of 2011.

Dec. 2010: Turbine finally recovered. All 12 of the turbine rotor blades had been destroyed by the tides. It emerges later that the destruction had happened within the first 20 days of deployment.

Over-optimistic predictions about turbine deployments

Since the OpenHydro turbine was deployed in 2009 and recovered a year later, no other turbines have gone into the water. Yet politicians and developers consistently predicted that more turbines were coming “next year”.

Jan. 2011: The Herald reports that Minas Basin Pulp and Power and its partner Marine Current Turbines Ltd. of Bristol, England along with Alstom Hydro of France and its partner, Clean Current Power Systems of Vancouver, plan to deploy turbines at the FORCE test site in 2012.

April 2011: An official with Atlantis Resources says hundreds of turbines could be deployed in the Minas Basin within five years after four prototypes go into the water. The four prototypes are scheduled to be installed in late 2012.

July 2011: Company officials express optimism about the future of tidal power in Nova Scotia at a tidal energy symposium in Halifax organized by the provincial government. Jean-Francois Ally of Alstom Hydro, the French company that operates high-speed trains all over the world, says ocean energy is the next big thing. Chris Bernardi of Lockheed Martin predicts the Bay of Fundy will be a launch pad for a global tidal industry and Brendan Corr from the Irish company OpenHydro says the tidal energy sector will bring hundreds of jobs to Nova Scotia if it can produce electricity more cheaply than offshore wind turbines.

Jan. 2014: The French company Alstom announces that it is abandoning its tidal test berth at the FORCE site in the Minas Passage to focus on the 1MW turbine it is testing in Scotland.

Experts more realistic about hurdles

Sept. 2012: Halifax hosts an international marine renewable energy conference with hundreds of experts attending. Those experts warn about the hurdles that need to be taken into account in developing tidal power:

  1. Dana Morin of Fundy Tidal Inc. says if tidal power projects are to be successful in small towns such as Parrsboro, it will be crucial to keep local people informed about what’s happening and to include them in the planning…
  2. David Krohn, who speaks for the UK tidal industry, says the number one barrier to the development of tidal power is attracting investors willing to risk their money on as-yet, unproven technologies. Krohn adds that the industry needs to get the first arrays into the water to prove to investors, the public and politicians that tidal power will work.
  3. Chris Campbell of Marine Renewables Canada says if the industry is to succeed in Nova Scotia, tidal developers will need to receive a subsidy or feed-in tariff more than three times higher than rates for conventional home electricity. Otherwise, he says, developers will go elsewhere.
  4. Anna Redden of the Acadia Tidal Energy Institute says the industry faces many technical challenges and it will be 10 to 20 years before tidal power is generated in Nova Scotia on a competitive, commercial basis. “It won’t be a huge commercial operation,” she adds. “We will learn as we go. I think it would be very foolish to plan for putting 20 to 40 to 50 units in the water within the next five years.”

Support for turbines forging ahead

My timeline shows that there have been concerted efforts in the last couple of years to support the deployment of more turbines. In November 2013, the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board approved a series of subsidies or feed-in tariffs to reassure companies and their investors that testing their various technologies at the FORCE test site near Parrsboro will be worthwhile financially.

And in October 2014, the FORCE tidal research centre oversaw the successful installation of four power cables, 11 kilometres in length, to connect underwater turbines to the electrical substation and power lines that are already in place. Work also continues on sophisticated monitoring systems that will measure everything from ocean currents to the movements of sea life in the test area.

Once again, developers are saying they plan to put turbines in the water later this year.

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