Balancing Human and Environmental Issues in Tidal Power Development
Named for the Maliseet-Passamaquoddy word for “boiling tides,” Maine’s Cobscook Bay is one of the most promising places in the nation for tidal power. Last summer, a demonstration project here became the first in the U.S. to generate electricity from tidal currents using underwater turbines. Making sure this technology is developed sustainably is the focus of an SSI project led by UMaine researchers Gayle Zydlewski and Teresa Johnson.
Launched by the Portland-based Ocean Renewable Power Company (ORPC), the demonstration project consists of two 20-foot-long underwater turbines that resemble the blades of a giant push lawnmower. Suspended from a small barge, the test turbines generate enough electricity to charge batteries for a Coast Guard search-and-rescue vessel. The company hopes to scale up the project to produce enough power for every home and business in Eastport within the next few years, and eventually all of Down East Maine, according to ORPC’s website.
As engineers tackle the technical challenges, Zydlewski, Johnson and their colleagues are studying the environmental, social and economic issues surrounding tidal power. Based on the lessons learned in Eastport and other communities on Cobscook Bay, they aim to create a model process that any community can use to make informed decisions about the development of tidal power in local waters.
Perhaps the biggest environmental question is how tidal turbines affect marine life. Zydlewski is collaborating with local fishermen to learn more about fish populations and migration in Cobscook Bay throughout the year. This information will help determine turbine placement to minimize potential impacts on fish and other marine life.
“As a fish biologist, my interest is in looking at how we can develop tidal power in Maine in an environmentally acceptable fashion,” says Zydlewski, an assistant professor in the School of Marine Sciences who also is a researcher with the Maine Tidal Power Initiative. “And that dovetails into the idea of how can this be acceptable to fishermen.”
To address the human side of the equation, Zydlewski enlisted Johnson, a social scientist who specializes in fisheries and fishing communities. In collaboration with area organizations including the Cobscook Bay Resource Center and the Maine Sea Grant Program, the researchers designed and conducted an in-depth survey of about 40 key stakeholders ranging from fishermen to regulators to scientists.
“We’re interested in understanding the human dimensions of tidal power,” says Johnson, an assistant professor of marine policy in the School of Marine Sciences. “We want to know what the community’s concerns are and what questions they want addressed.”
Although Johnson is still analyzing results, she says a major concern is whether tidal power development will bring desperately needed jobs to Eastport and nearby communities. This area fell upon hard times years ago with declining fish stocks, closing canneries and a chronic dearth of employers. The SSI team addresses the need for jobs and other stakeholder concerns with research that emphasizes community input, information exchange, engagement and real solutions.
Will Hopkins, Executive Director of the Cobscook Bay Resource Center, is among those looking forward to the SSI team’s preliminary findings, which will be shared with all stakeholders and the community. “Anytime you can get experienced fishermen, who have lived their lives on the water, together with university researchers, who have the richness of their scientific background, generally, good things happen,” he says.
Such cooperative research gets scientists out of the ivory tower and gives those who have deep practical knowledge of resources and issues the opportunity to share their expertise. As this project continues to unfold, Johnson says it will yield important lessons about how to engage stakeholders in science and ensure that findings are communicated back to them in the most effective ways.
Both Johnson and Zydlewski are drawn to SSI’s emphasis on working with and in communities to find solutions that are truly sustainable. “This is a big part of the reason I got involved with SSI,” says Zydlewski. “It’s very rewarding to interact with people. I don’t want to just go in and give a presentation on the work we conducted. I want to be able to engage people and get their feedback so we can learn how to conduct our research so that it is effective for local needs.”
The results from such research will help Eastport and other communities ensure that tidal power is developed sustainably. This work is timely: more than 45 tidal power projects are being proposed around the world, a five-fold increase since 2009, according to IHS Emerging Energy Research, a consulting firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“Tidal power technologies are developing very rapidly,” says Johnson, who grew up in a fishing family in Rockland. “We hope to document the lessons learned in the Eastport area so other communities that want to develop tidal power can have a way forward. We want our work to give local communities a voice in the process.”