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A Test of Tidal Power in the Cape Canal: 'Like a Wind Turbine on Steroids'

Workers prepared to install a wind turbine at the Bourne Tidal Test Site in the Cape Cod Canal Tuesday.
Daniel Ackerman
Workers prepare to install an underwater turbine at the Bourne Tidal Test Site in the Cape Cod Canal Tuesday.

Workers plunged a turbine into the Cape Cod Canal Tuesday, testing the waters for a new renewable energy resource: the tides.

The turbine installation occurred at the Bourne Tidal Test Site near the Railroad Bridge. The nonprofit Marine Renewable Energy Collaborative (MRECo) built the site—which looks like heavy-duty scaffolding in the water 60 feet from the northern shore—in 2018. But this week marks the platform’s first actual test of a tidal turbine. MRECo’s Executive Director John Miller said the COVID-19 pandemic delayed previously scheduled tests.

Miller described the contraption as a “wind turbine on steroids”—with heavyset blades to withstand the canal’s powerful 4-knot tidal flows.

New Bedford-based Littoral Power Systems designed the turbine, which features two opposing meter-long blades. CEO David Duquette said the contraption was engineered for easy installation. “The cost of underwater civil works is often what breaks these projects, so we’re coming up with something that can be moored very simply,” he said. “It’s designed to not produce any net torque reaction, which sounds super boring—but it's actually an incredibly important point, because it doesn't need a doesn't need a complicated mooring arrangement to hold it in place.”

Duquette added that the turbine could be suited to one day power remote communities, like islands in Alaska or Maine, that might have trouble connecting to the grid.

Miller highlighted reliability as a key advantage of tidal energy over other renewables like wind or solar. “You can tell where the tide is going to run 100 years ahead of time. So it's very, very predictable,” said Miller. “For someone who operates a grid, he knows that there's power there, and it's going to be there at a certain time.”

Currently in the U.S., just a handful of small-scale tidal energy projects produce power, including one in New York’s East River. No such projects are underway in Massachusetts, though Miller says the 4-knot tidal flows of Muskeget Channel between Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket could make the area suitable for future development.

This week’s test in the Cape Cod Canal will run for two days. Researchers will use underwater cameras to monitor how fish react to the turbine.

Daniel Ackerman has left CAI.
In his time at the station he reported on the South Coast. He came to the station from Minnesota Public Radio, where he reported on science and the environment. Daniel has produced audio documentaries on a motley mix of topics, from the science of sewage to the history of automobile license plates. He holds a PhD in climate change ecology from the University of Minnesota. Daniel was a 2021-22 Report For America corps member.