In the eternal pursuit of energy, Americans have pumped the desert ground, drilled the Arctic tundra, and blasted the mountains of Appalachia. Now, a new frontier in alternative energy is being explored in coastal bays, harbors, and rivers, and Maine is at the very edge of that frontier.

Relatively untapped and unexplored before a 2005 study by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPI), Maine’s tidal power potential has long provoked the interest of politicians, engineers, entrepreneurs, developers and dreamers. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has issued preliminary permits for nine of the 14 applications submitted to the agency since 2006. A preliminary permit grants a company exclusive rights to develop a full permit and license application for that particular location.

Oceana, the parent company of New Hampshire Tidal Energy Company and Maine Tidal Energy Company, has permits for the Piscataqua and Penobscot rivers, and a proposal for the Kennebec River is pending. According to their most recent progress report, Maine Tidal Energy Company is still gathering information, analyzing data on flow regimes, drafting maps of important land features, transmission tie-ins and channel geometry.

Most of the companies are proposing some sort of underwater turbine that generates energy from the tides, except for Tidewalker Associates of Trescott, which wants to construct a barrage, or dam, across the entrance to Half Moon Cove in Perry and Eastport. Tidewalker has a second proposal pending for a site in Cutler, and submitted a third, for Quoddy Narrows in March of this year.

According to Roger Bedard of EPRI, ideal sites are close to a power grid and have large amounts of fast-moving water with enough room to build on the sea floor while staying clear of boat traffic. Of thousands of potential sites, only a handful are likely to be successful.

“The permit holders are betting that they have locked up an economically viable site, and that they are going to come up with a technically feasible and environmental responsible technology,” said Dana Murch of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s hydropower and dams office. “Everyone is betting on their technology working, but everyone has to go out and build a prototype and put it in the water and see if it works.”

In a progress report to FERC, Oceana reports that it recently completed constructing two, prototype tidal energy conversion devices (one six-foot in diameter and one ten-foot in diameter) slated to undergo testing at the Carderock Division of the U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center in Maryland. Oceana’s turbine design consists of a propeller-like blade attached to a collar that slides up and down on a post positioned in the river channel, according to Murch. “That design has an advantage because you can haul them out of the water to service them; on the down side, you have a line of poles, the top of which you are going to see,” said Murch.

The company furthest along in the process appears to be Ocean Renewable Power Company (ORPC), who are now testing a small-scale prototype “turbine generator unit” in the Western Passage of Cobscook Bay (see “Firm tests new tidal power equipment in the Eastport area,” this page). Each unit consists of two cross-flow turbines that drive a permanent magnet generator, with propellers that are stacked up vertically and tethered to the bottom. A $211,200 Maine Technology Institute development award helped ORPC test the prototype, and another $300,000 award will help demonstrate technical feasibility.

Nearby, the Passamaquoddy Tribe obtained a preliminary permit in November, and in June the tribe received a grant that will help them test eight-foot underwater turbines manufactured by Underwater Electric Kite, Inc. at Kendall Head and First Island.

Maine Maritime Academy’s Tidal Energy Device Evaluation Center (TEDEC) holds a permit for the Bagaduce River. “Officials at Maine Maritime Academy and TEDEC have chosen to engage stakeholders and the public to identify avenues of collaboration, in preparation for application for a full license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2010 or 2011,” said Ron Beard of University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s Maine Solutions program. Beard has spent the last few months interviewing community members to find out their concerns about the MMA project, which range from wildlife and habitat to erosion, navigation hazards and commercial fishing impacts.

According to speakers at an ocean energy symposium in June hosted by the University of Maine School of Law and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, the need is urgent and the challenges are many. Federal and state regulators have little or no experience with tidal energy projects. The technology for making commercial electricity from tides and waves is still in development, and electricity generation and transmission infrastructure is largely based on land. According to John Kerry of Maine’s Office of Energy Independence and Security, “huge renewable projects are happening in the Maritime provinces to our north; Maine is in the middle of these projects, but our existing transmission grid still puts us at the end of the line.” Kerry is advising Maine Gov. John Baldacci to create frameworks that allow private enterprises to thrive. “Renewable energy developers should be assured that the state’s policies will support them in the long run,” he said.

Meanwhile, some people, including former Gov. Angus King and Cianbro CEO Peter Vigue, are looking farther offshore to develop ocean-based wind farms in federal waters, which have the potential to generate much more electricity than nearshore tidal devices.

Since issuing the preliminary permits, FERC has developed a new process for licensing tidal power projects, allowing permit-holders up to two years to file an application for a short-term pilot project license. Permits can be cancelled if FERC determines that significant progress has not been made towards developing projects.