The first of three turbines is expected to go into the Bay of Fundy next month in spite of concerns raised by some local fishermen after the government approved the initial phase of a tidal energy project.
Nova Scotia's Minister of the Environment, a long-time fisherman himself, acknowledged those concerns and admitted that the possible effects are unknown. But Sterling Belliveau said the only way to identify problems is to start installing turbines and monitor closely the result.
"These questions are only going to be addressed [if]you have a demonstration project," he said Tuesday after approving the trial based on an environmental assessment.
"I think you basically cannot sit in a conference room and get the answer to that, you have to go out in the real life, in the real world."
A full-scale tidal energy project, if viable, would involve hundreds of turbines and could produce about 100 megawatts from the bay's huge tides. That would be 10 per cent of the province's energy needs, but such a system is years away.
The demonstration phase of the project, involving three turbines, is expected to cost $60-million to 70-million. Each of the three companies involved - which will co-operate on environmental monitoring and onshore development - intends to test a different type of turbine.
Minas Basin Pulp and Power will suspend its equipment between the bottom and the surface. The turbine will float until the best current is found and then be fixed to the bottom with anchors. Company vice-president John Woods said yesterday that his firm aims to have the turbine operational this time next year.
The president of Clean Current, a British Columbia company, would not comment yesterday on the project. Earlier information from the company suggested it would use a turbine designed to rest on the seabed.
The model chosen by Nova Scotia Power is similar. About six storeys high, with a turbine 10 metres across, it will use gravity to stay still underwater. This design is expected to be in place first, with the turbine going into the water late next month. It will not initially feed power into the grid.
"It's really a big science experiment," said David Rodenhiser, a spokesman with the utility.
He said more than 200 turbines could follow, but that the company must assess the first one's effect on its surroundings, and how well it stands up to the environment it is placed in.
The unknowns are what worry some fisherman. Lobsterman Mark Taylor, president of the Heavy Current Fishing Association of Hall's Harbour, not far from the proposed sites, has expressed concerns about the effects on local catches.
"Two hundred machines in that area could mean that fishery is lost to us," he said earlier this year.
Mr. Belliveau stressed that, under the terms of the environmental assessment approval, the companies must establish a monitoring body that includes stakeholders and keep close watch on the effects of the project.
"There's a number of questions, anywhere from salmon to plankton to herring and migrating whales, all [these]questions will be addressed," Mr. Belliveau said, emphasizing that he would revoke the project's approval if significant environmental damage is found.
"I have the authority to stop [it]as simply as walking over and turning off that light switch," he said. "And I would not hesitate if the science and adverse effects was there. I know that body of water and I understand the importance of getting this right."