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Engineer George Baker saw tidal power’s potential in the Bay of Fundy

George Baker.


An early champion of tidal power, George Baker was fascinated by the potential of harnessing the world's highest tides in Nova Scotia's Bay of Fundy, and devoted decades to creating the first tidal power plant in North America.

"Living in close proximity to the Bay of Fundy, I became convinced about 1949 that the tides of the Minas Basin [a Bay of Fundy inlet] should be able to supply some 4,000 MW of electric power, and it became a personal objective to ascertain the feasibility of Fundy tidal power development," Mr. Baker, an electrical engineer and community newspaper publisher, once wrote.

In 1971, Mr. Baker became a director and later vice-president of the crown corporation Nova Scotia Tidal Power Corp. But it would be another 13 years before he would see the opening of the small Annapolis Tidal Power Plant, one of only a handful in the world. For three decades since then, the plant has generated up to 20 megawatts of electricity for the province's power grid.

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Mr. Baker was so fascinated by the tides and their incredible strength that he always carried a hand-held calculator that allowed him to program tidal cycles. He was also prone to creating models that he would sometimes set up in the bathtub of his home in Kentville, N.S. His daughter Alison Reynolds remembers not being allowed to bathe for a week so his model of the Bay of Fundy could go through its tidal cycles.

"While [he was] an engineer and strong advocate for tidal power development, he realized that any major construction project would cause environmental impacts, some negative and some positive," said Donald Gordon, a retired scientist with the federal government's Bedford Institute of Oceanography. "He was a real advocate of learning about the potential environmental impacts."

Working closely with scientists at the Bedford Institute and academics at Acadia University, Mr. Baker advocated for and kept abreast of scientific research. "George really wanted to know the bad news up front," Mr. Gordon said. "He was a strong supporter of science." His mind was always swirling with new ideas and questions he wanted answered. Waiting in airport bars en route to conferences, Mr. Baker was known to push his beer glass aside and flip over his place mat to sketch one of his many engineering ideas.

Mr. Baker, who died on Nov. 10 in Kentville at the age of 95, had lung cancer and a heart condition. He leaves his daughters Alison and Catherine; four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. His wife, Ethel died in 1997.

Born in Dartmouth, N.S., on Oct. 29, 1918, Mr. Baker was the only child of Clifford and Edith Baker. When he was 11, his father went to live in a tuberculosis sanatorium and died a few years later. In 1936, Mr. Baker left home to study at the Royal Military College of Canada, and went to war in 1939. He was a lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, and arrived in England in 1940. Three years later, he became General Staff Officer Wireless for the 1st Canadian Army. He was made a member of the Order of the British Empire for his work in planning and implementing the signals portion of the D-Day deception plan and communications for the Canadian army's advance through Europe.

In England, he met Ethel Marie Humbert at a dance and the couple married in 1942. Three years later, he returned to civilian life and went to study electrical engineering at the University of Toronto. After working briefly with the Canadian General Electric Company, he returned to Kentville to take over the family business, the Kentville Publishing Company, which owned community newspapers.

During the more than 30 years he owned the company, he wrote countless editorials, many espousing the virtues of tidal power, and maintained a hands-on approach to the business operations. Able to fix almost anything, and adamant that the newspapers publish on time, he showed up at the office one hot summer night in a new clean suit ready to fix a mechanical problem with a printing press. After several hours of working in the heat, he stripped off his greasy suit and continued to work in his underwear. The newspaper was delivered on time the next day.

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While a newspaper man, he also served as manager of the Kentville Electric Commission for slightly more than 20 years and as vice-chairman of the commission that established the province's Medical Services Insurance Programs. Although he retired in 1992, he continued almost until his death to consult and keep his hand in many projects. "He was into everything," Ms. Reynolds said. "He just never stopped."

Outside of work, he was an avid hunter, fisherman and sailor. A championship marksman, he was a member of the 1949 Canadian bisley (target shooting) team and later competed in Olympic trials for dinghy racing. He loved to spend time on an island he bought in Nova Scotia's picturesque Mahone Bay and on his ketch, which he could sail solo.

In the spring and summer, he would venture into the wilderness with his dog and canoe. For several days, he would travel across the interior of Nova Scotia, fishing along the way and keeping a detailed diary that could tell a reader about every rapid he encountered on a particular river.

For his work, Mr. Baker was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada and received honorary doctorates from the Royal Military College of Canada, the Technical University of Nova Scotia (now part of Dalhousie University), and Acadia University.

"He was so humble," Ms. Reynolds said. "He just didn't want to say anything that might smack of bragging."

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