In Maine, tidal energy sites come in three general categories. There are the large commercial sites like the ones off Eastport and Lubec, the location of Maine’s highest tides. At the other end of the spectrum are the very small turbine sites, using technology comparable in size to a small wind turbine. Where the Maine Tidal Power Initiative expects to be most helpful is in middle-size tidal energy locales such as the tidal energy project being pursued by the town of Wiscasset and the Chewonki Foundation, a local conservation organization, Peterson says.
“This may be our model site,” Peterson says. “Originally, a commercial developer came in and permitted the site. The Chewonki Foundation worked with the town to exercise its municipal option. This gives us the opportunity to now look at the site and discuss with the community what its values are, and to look at the environmental impact and how much energy will be generated so that the community can make the decision.”
In the Maine Tidal Power Initiative, research on community concerns and the potential social impacts related to tidal energy development is the focus of social scientist Teresa Johnson, whose work examines the human dimensions of marine fisheries.
“With a lot of renewable energy projects, the limiting factor in development is public perception and opposition,” says Johnson. “There are concerns about loss of fishing grounds and the impact on the environmental, social and economic conditions in the community. It’s important that university researchers are there to provide unbiased assessment of impact and the community understands we are independent researchers.”
In summer 2010, in collaboration with the Maine Sea Grant Program and the Cobscook Bay Resource Center, Johnson surveyed stakeholders — from fishermen and scientists to regulators and Passamaquoddy tribal members — in the Quoddy Bay region in an effort to better understand their concerns about tidal energy and the related questions they have. In particular, Johnson asked residents about the role of ORPC in their communities, and how scientists and engineers can best communicate their findings.
In the initial survey, concerns about the potential environmental impacts of a tidal energy project on marine mammals, fish and birds topped the list.
Residents also indicated that they were unaware UMaine scientists were on site conducting research and hoped that the findings of their work would be shared — in layperson’s terms — with the community. Strategies ranged from local articles in papers to community forums and websites.
“It’s not about keeping the community appeased, but making sure stakeholders are engaged so everyone can move forward in a responsible way,” says Johnson. “The goal is to avoid unintentional consequences, which can happen with fast-tracked projects.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty related to tidal energy because it’s so new,” she says. “Our big task is staying engaged with the community — staying on top of their concerns. Moving forward in tidal power, it’s important to know that the research makes sense and is useful to the community. We need research that answers their questions.”