Japanese Delegation Signs Tidal Energy Research Agreement with UMaine

University and government officials from Japan were in Orono this week to sign a research agreement between the University of Maine’s Maine Tidal Power Initiative and the North Japan Research Institute for Sustainable Energy of Hirosaki University.

The groups hope to foster scientific cooperation and academic exchange between the two universities, advancing the development of sustainable tidal energy in both the U.S. and Japan.

In Maine, collaborative studies between UMaine and Ocean Renewable Power Company are underway in Cobscook Bay, where dramatic tidal fluctuations have the potential to generate electricity on a large scale. In his welcoming comments to the Japanese delegation at a meeting Monday morning, Michael Peterson, UMaine professor of mechanical engineering, said the Maine Tidal Power Initiative is examining all potential impacts of locating turbines in Maine waters, including engineering challenges, generating capacity, impact on local fisheries and ecological systems, local and regional economic benefits, cultural changes to local communities, and more.

Dr. Hirotada Nanjo of Hirosaki University told UMaine researchers and others participants in the Maine Tidal Power Initiative that Japan must redouble its efforts to develop sustainable energy sources following last year’s devastating earthquake and tsunami that destroyed nuclear power plants in Fukushima Prefecture on the country’s Pacific coast. But the goal of establishing a tidal energy system along the coast of Japan faces powerful opposition from the nation’s lucrative tuna fishery, Nanjo said, since submerged turbines, pilings and other energy infrastructure could entangle fishing lines. Other challenges include the presence of nuclear submarines and other vessels in coastal waters.

Speaking through an interpreter, Nanjo outlined plans for a proposed energy project powered by currents and tides in the Sea of Japan, where water rushing in from the south through the Korean Strait has only three naturally constrained outflows:

Tsugaro Strait, La Perouse Strait and the Strait of Tartary. Much of Japan’s ocean current power exploration is now focused on Tsugaro Strait, where, Nanjo said, natural landforms create flow velocities suitable for driving turbines.

Groups in Japan have been exploring the potential for tidal production in the Tsugaro Strait for over a decade, Nanjo said, but the recent nuclear disaster has re-energized that effort.

“We are on the verge of a big turning point,” Nanjo said. “Right now, our energy production is based on fossil fuels, but we will be changing to renewables.”

Tsugaro Strait is bounded on the north by the island of Hokkaido and on the south by the Prefecture of Aomori on the northern tip of the island of Honshu, which has a sister state agreement with Maine.

Contact: Meg Haskell, (207) 581-3766