PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and state of Maine agreed Wednesday to work together to advance tidal power projects in a state that holds great potential because it’s home to the biggest tidal swing in the contiguous United States.

Similar agreements have been reached with Oregon and Washington state, but this was the first on the East Coast.

Maine Gov. John Baldacci, who was on hand for the agreement’s signing in Washington, D.C., said the state is committed to developing renewable resources.

“Our state has been aggressive in its pursuit of clean energy to help end our country’s dependence on fossil fuels, and this agreement will help establish a coordinated and responsible partnership between Maine and FERC,” Baldacci said in a statement.

Tidal power appeals in several ways.

Unlike the wind, tides are predictable. As an added bonus, water’s greater density means fewer turbines are needed to produce the same amount of electricity as wind turbines. Finally, there’s no interference with boats or aesthetic issues associated with wind farms because the turbines are deep underwater.

One company, Ocean Renewable Power, is already testing an underwater turbine off eastern Maine and hopes to deploy larger turbines in 2010 and 2011 under a pilot project.

Regulators, for their part, are just as eager to get the turbines in the water to determine the potential impact on aquatic life and the marine ecosystem.

“If you ask me as a regulator, what are the environmental impacts, I say I have no idea,” said Dana Murch of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. “It’s of vital importance that we get some units in the water and see what the impacts are, because the energy potential is enormous.”

In Maine, there was a rush by the private sector to file preliminary permits with FERC for potentially lucrative underwater sites around the same time a 2006 study by nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute concluded that it made economic sense to look underwater for affordable electricity.

At one point, there were 17 different active permits in Maine; the number has since dropped to eight today, said Murch, the DEP’s dams and hydro director.

Ocean Renewable Power holds a permit for what may be Maine’s best site: the Western Passage in Passamaquoddy Bay, where twice a day the tide rises and falls 20 feet, generating swift currents.

The company hopes to install four turbines with a total of four megawatts of capacity in the Western Passage, as well as another turbine with one megawatt of power in Cobscook Bay. All told, the company believes there’s 100 megawatts of potential between the two sites.

John Ferland, Ocean Renewable Power’s vice president of project development, said the memorandum of understanding between the state and FERC will help move the pilot project along. The goal, he said, is to evaluate the five underwater turbines over an eight-year period.

“There’s an effort under way to create a regulatory pathway that’s more in keeping with the needs of this new industry. It’s sending a signal to developers that there’s a very serious public policy attempt … to make the regulatory system more efficient,” he said.


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