After years of preparation, electricity-generating tidal turbines will soon be deployed in the intense underwater current of the Bay of Fundy, and linked to the power grid.
In the next few months, a consortium led by Ireland-based OpenHydro will place two five-storey-tall, 300-tonne turbines that look a bit like giant jet engines on the ocean floor in the roiling waters of Minas Basin, near the town of Parrsboro, N.S.
The turbines will be the first installed at the Fundy Ocean Research Centre for Energy (FORCE) since it completed the placement of submarine power cables to connect test devices to the province's power grid. There are four underwater "berths" for turbines at FORCE, and three other groups are planning to test different prototypes there in the coming years.
But OpenHydro will be the first in place, and getting its turbines under water will mark a key Canadian milestone for an energy resource that has shown so much potential but not yet lived up to its promise.
Tidal power has been touted for decades as a potential source of electricity, but aside from a few installations around the world it has not gained much traction. There are just a handful of tidal power plants in existence – including one near Annapolis Royal in Nova Scotia – but most use a "barrage" system where tidal water flows into a reservoir, then powers traditional hydro turbines on the way back out to sea.
Placing arrays of dozens of turbines underwater, right in the tidal current, can generate power without the need for big dams and their tremendous environmental impact.
FORCE, which is funded by Ottawa, Nova Scotia, Encana Corp. and several tidal companies, was established as a place to test in-stream turbines in one of the most powerful currents in the world. The idea is to make sure Canada gets a place in the global development of the technology, which has so far made the greatest strides in Britain.
OpenHydro was involved in an earlier attempt to test a turbine at FORCE, long before the cables and other infrastructure were in place. In 2009, it deployed a $10-million prototype, but the current ripped the blades off the device. The lesson: Fundy's tides were even more powerful than expected.
The new turbines will be "deployed and grid-connected by the end of 2015," said OpenHydro's Canadian manager, Jeremy Poste. They are substantially larger than the one that broke down, and more robust.
The two OpenHydro turbines will generate about 4 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 1,000 homes. By 2019, the company hopes to have several more turbines at the site, generating about 50 MW.
Since the failed 2009 test, FORCE has also made advancements to be a better host for turbine tests, said communications manager Matt Lumley. Aside from the power cables, there is now a hydroelectric substation to link to the provincial grid, and a slew of new monitoring equipment. The Nova Scotia government has also established a special "feed-in tariff" that will pay a premium price for the electricity generated by the test turbines. (The province has set the rates to ensure that consumers' electricity bills don't rise by more than 2 per cent if 20 MW is installed.)
Another key role for FORCE is as a watchdog, monitoring the environmental impacts of the turbines to make sure there is minimal damage to fish, mammals and the tidal flow itself.
In the long term, Nova Scotia and the rest of Atlantic Canada could benefit from both the power potential of the tidal industry, and the spinoff impacts for companies supplying the sector.
A report issued in April by the Halifax-based Offshore Energy Research Association said the tidal energy industry in Nova Scotia could, over the next 25 years, contribute $1.7-billion to the province's economy, and create up to 22,000 full-time jobs. Many of the benefits would come from supplying research and manufacturing technology to the tidal sector.
"It isn't just a pure play on renewable power," said OERA executive director Stephen Dempsey. "The bigger prize is the global supply chain."
The OERA report noted, however, that there are still huge barriers to getting the industry up and running, in Nova Scotia and in the other parts of the world. The reliability of the technology has not yet been proved, and it is still far more expensive than other sources of power. Indeed, tidal power may not be competitive with other forms of renewable energy such as wind power until 2040, the report said.
Tidal power has one huge advantage over solar and wind, Mr. Dempsey said, in that it is completely predictable and reliable. In addition, the slow development of the industry means Nova Scotia still has lots of opportunities to get in while the industry is still on the ground floor, he said.
Mr. Dempsey said tidal technology is "more complex and challenging" than other renewables, mainly because it is underwater and involves such strong forces. He likened it to the difference between building a boat and building a submarine.
The complex corporate connections of the global tidal-power business
The test "berths" on the sea floor at FORCE have been booked by four conglomerates formed by a spiderweb of international companies.
OpenHydro, likely to be the first to get a turbine in the water, is based in Dublin, but owned by French conglomerate DCNS. It is working with Nova Scotia energy and utilities company Emera Inc.
A second berth is held by Black Rock Tidal Power Inc., owned by the German company Schottel Group.
Another is held by Nova Scotia-based Minas Energy, which partnered with Siemens' subsidiary Marine Current Turbines. But Marine Current has just been sold to Singapore-based Atlantis Resources Ltd., which holds yet another berth.
Atlantis, which has most of its operations in Britain, is working with U.S. firm Lockheed Martin Corp. and Canada's Irving Shipbuilding Inc. on its Fundy tidal project.