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Turbine in canal will help expand knowledge of tidal power

Workers prepared to install an underwater turbine during a previous test at the Bourne Tidal Test Site in the Cape Cod Canal.
CAI file photo
Workers prepared to install an underwater turbine during a previous test at the Bourne Tidal Test Site in the Cape Cod Canal.

We won’t be able to see it, but a turbine is being installed in the waters of the Cape Cod Canal to conduct tests that could one day lead to harnessing tidal power to produce electricity.

John Miller, director of the non-profit Massachusetts Renewable Energy Collaborative, tells CAI the Collaborative will operate the turbine at its site near the railroad bridge.

“And it'll be in for at least a month, a full lunar cycle, because the tides are driven by the moon and the tide varies over the course of a month and they want to be able to gather all that data,” Miller said.

The project, funded with $300,000 from the Massachusetts Seaport Economic Council, is designed to help alternative power developers to learn more about how their systems work in an open ocean environment near shore.

The Collaborative’s mission is to help private companies develop marine renewable energy. It received a permit for the test turbine from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the canal.

“They've been very good in allowing us to have a cut-out area near the railroad bridge to do this testing where we don't interfere with the commercial traffic in the canal. Our job is to do the testing so that they can develop new technologies more cheaply and effectively and get them to market.”

The canal is not considered to be a site for eventual turbines, because of limited room for them to operate.

“The idea is not to have a production facility, but to have a prototype test facility,” Miller said. “Full-scale devices of this kind are being designed to be 30 or 40 feet in diameter.” The test turbine will be 10 feet in diameter.

Today’s tidal energy turbines require water velocities of over 4 knots, which means they are not suitable in many locations. As more efficient turbines are developed, they could be used in rivers and harbors or under offshore wind platforms where the water flow is much slower.

Although the canal is not likely to be a site for generating tidal energy, Nantucket Sound is estimated to have the potential for 180 megawatts of tidal power, equivalent to the output of a nuclear power plant.

Miller said it’s frustrating that electricity generated during the testing phase will not find its way into the power grid. That’s because the Massachusetts Department of Transportation denied the project a permit to connect a power line to the grid along the canal.

“So, we're essentially heating up the atmosphere, burning off the power and heating the atmosphere which is a crying shame. You could be putting electrons into the grid and instead, we're burning them off,” Miller said.

He said he’s hopeful the Healey administration, with its focus on environmental issues, will ultimately issue a permit.

John Basile is the local host of All Things Considered weekday afternoons and a reporter.