Tomorrow (Wednesday), an Irish High Court will begin to sort out the ownership of an Irish company whose bankruptcy forced it to abandon its gigantic principal asset — a doughnut-shaped, five-storey high, 1,000-tonne turbine — an ocean away at the bottom of the Bay of Fundy.
The third version of the company’s device, designed to transform the forceful tides of Fundy into electricity, had only been lowered into a provincially owned demonstration site in late July. After being connected to the Nova Scotia grid for a mere two days, its French parent company pulled the plug on an investment of $400 million, with close to $200 million owing. (Emera Inc. is the other partner which owns 20 per cent of the $33-million turbine known as Cape Sharp Tidal Venture.)
OpenHydro’s financial collapse has spawned shock and confusion. It has also led to speculation about the future plans of three other companies which rent berths at the same demonstration area in the Minas Passage near Parrsboro. Taxpayers have spent at least $40 million so far to establish and operate the tidal test site, which is run by a non-profit agency called FORCE (Fundy Ocean Research Center for Energy).
So far, in nine years, only OpenHydro has deployed a device in the hostile waters of the Minas Passage. Yet when contacted by the Halifax Examiner last week, all three remaining companies (berth-holders) indicate they will continue with their plans to test turbines of different designs by late 2020. But all three — two based in the UK and one in Canada — acknowledged that the collapse of OpenHydro will make it harder to raise the hundreds of millions of dollars required to do it.
“It has an impact. Now we have to work harder than ever to show investors the difference between our plans,” says John Woods, an early proponent of tidal energy. He’s the agent for Minas Tidal, a company that grew out of Minas Basin Pulp and Power before being acquired by Tribute Resources, a renewable energy company based in Ontario.
“It’s unfortunate the collapse of OpenHydro has dominated news coverage of research into Fundy tidal power because it has caused society to blink on the obvious benefits of extracting renewable energy from tidal flows,” Woods says. “There are other players at the demonstration site. But all the public is hearing now is about the failure of that one technology company without realizing there are others in the pipeline.”
Woods, who continues to represent Minas Tidal on the FORCE board of directors, says his company and the two others will test turbine technologies completely different from the one piloted by OpenHydro. Instead of a turbine mounted on the ocean floor, Minas Tidal will use a floating platform from which four propeller-like turbines will be suspended. He says the company’s target is to deploy several units in the Minas Passage next year and the remainder in 2020.
Sustainable Marine Energy
A significant experiment with tidal energy could come even sooner than that. It’s slated for the end of this month in Grand Passage, the 1.6-kilometer-wide channel between Briar Island and Digby Neck, where currents are gentler and the water flow less intense than the energy created by the funnel of Minas Passage.
“We’re warming up in the foothills before we start climbing the mountains,” says Jason Hayman, managing director of Sustainable Marine Energy, a renewable technology developer out of Scotland. “We want to show people what Tidal 2.0 looks like.”
In Connel, Scotland, Sustainable Marine Energy (SME) has designed and successfully deployed a 26-metre wide floating platform on the surface of the water. The above photo show four “legs” protruding down from the stern. Each leg supports a three-bladed turbine (resembling the familiar wind turbine design) which is lowered about four meters into the sea.
The tidal turbines are manufactured by Schottel of Germany. Schottel is a part-owner of SME and sole owner of Black Rock Tidal, one of four berth-holders remaining at the demonstration site near Parrsboro.
SME and Schottel are taking what Hayman calls, “a step-by-step” approach to test its “second generation” device in the relatively sheltered waters of Grand Passage instead of the FORCE demonstration site. Visibility is good, and sedimentation is less of an issue.
Hayman says the objective of the Grand Passage trial is to prove the technology before an eventual test (perhaps by the end of 2020) in the “brutal” environment of the Minas Passage — where both the risk and the reward are greater. Hayman suggests this relatively cautious, incremental approach is the lesson both developers and regulators should take away from the OpenHydro experience.
Unlike John Woods, who’s concerned that the headline-grabbing financial failure of OpenHydro will make investors skittish about the capital-intensive development of Fundy tidal power, Hayman says, “I hope that the failure actually makes it easier for other players like ourselves. I think the industry has been guilty of over-promising and under-delivering for some time now. This will encourage people to think about Fundy tidal energy more realistically and responsibly.”
The sudden and unexpected departure of OpenHydro exposed regulatory weaknesses, which has infuriated Bay of Fundy fishermen already skeptical of the competence of the company and the government to adequately monitor the interface between the long blades of the turbine and the fish and marine mammals sharing the environment.
The monitoring equipment on the abandoned turbine itself isn’t operating, and the government-approved contingency plan to send a remote-controlled platform equipped with sonar and other equipment to provide continuous monitoring still hasn’t happened, possibly due to a wait for parts or the wait for funds from the court-appointed liquidator to pay for boats and divers.
A SME floating platform with four 70-megawatt turbines attached could be in the water off Digby Neck as early as the third week of September. But that deployment is contingent on the provincial Department of Energy and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which are currently reviewing the paperwork on SME’s plan for monitoring the environmental impacts of the turbines on fish and marine life.
The latter includes, most notably, whales, whose well-being on the East Coast has become the focus of national and international attention. Various whales, including endangered Right Whales, ply the waters outside the Passage, where boat tours take tourists to watch them. Hayman says in the unlikely event a whale ventures into the same passage where fishing boats travel to and from port daily, the turbines would be stopped immediately.
Before the turbines receive permission to spin, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans will require the company to spend a month demonstrating that the platform’s video camera, sonar technology, and hydrophones (underwater microphones for picking up noise) are working properly. Should SME clear that hurdle, it would be permitted to operate the turbines during daylight hours for a two-month test without being connected to the grid. A separate trial at a later date would be needed to test how efficiently the turbines transform wave energy into electricity. Together, the four turbines are engineered to deliver 280 kilowatts, enough to power about 50 houses.
Hayman sees parallels (“déjà vu,” he calls it), between the status of wind power 30 years ago and tidal energy today. While some of North America’s largest private and public entities (e.g. Boeing, General Electric, and NASA) were among the earliest investors in wind, Hayman says they dropped out after “getting burnt” in the expensive trial and error phase. Some returned after fledgling technology developers such as Vestas and Enercon proved wind turbines could produce electricity economically. They’re big guns today. Hayman is hoping the same pattern plays out with tidal energy, with early investors such as Siemens and Lockheed Martin putting their feet (and their tens of millions of dollars) back into the water once new turbine designs prove capable of delivering electricity efficiently.
The third player in this new phase of tidal power development is DP Energy, a renewable energy company based in Ireland that manages projects all over the world, including wind and solar.
It rents two berths at the FORCE demonstration site near Parrsboro. John Kerr of DP Energy Canada says the company is moving forward with its plans to test two different turbine designs — one mounted on the ocean floor, and the other a floating platform with suspended turbines designed by Scott Renewables.
Kerr says the company expects to have at least one machine “commissioned’ and in the water by the end of 2020. “Our spend will exceed 100 million dollars,” he says matter-of-factly.
That of course depends on being able to raise money from other investors through the stock market. Kerr acknowledges that the loss of OpenHydro after 10 years of pioneering work is a setback for the industry. “It certainly challenges the effort to raise the money that will be required in the future. But we see the collapse not as a failure of technology, but as a commercial failure.”
Kerr is referring to the fact OpenHydro twice successfully connected turbines to the provincial grid. But the parent company cut off the flow of money before the performance of the third and upgraded version of the turbine could be evaluated. In a statement prepared for the High Court dealing with Naval Energies’ petition to liquidate OpenHydro, the president of Naval Energies stated it intends to concentrate on offshore wind and ocean thermal rather than tidal energy because “the deterioration of the market in France and around the world has been reflected in lack of commercial prospects over the long term.”
In Europe, cheaper renewable alternatives such as wind and solar energy have flushed out most tidal developers. A few, such as DP Energy and Schottel, have fetched up in Nova Scotia, primarily because of the $530 a megawatt hour the Province will pay for renewable tidal energy (a premium six or seven times higher than other sources of electricity) to encourage experimentation.
Among researchers and the Nova Scotia Department of Energy, the hope remains that further trial-and-error of turbine prototypes will eventually result in a commercial breakthrough and new jobs that could pay off for past disappointments.