Edgartown's tidal energy plan okayed
Monday, March 31, was a very good day for a team of Edgartown officials, private citizens, and university researchers who want to establish a tidal energy project in the waters east of Chappaquiddick. The news in their e-mail in-boxes was so momentous that, had it come one day later, they might have suspected an April Fool's prank.
But it was no joke. On Monday, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted a preliminary permit giving Edgartown exclusive rights to study an area of Muskeget Channel, a six-mile wide stretch of ocean between Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. The goal is to discover if the strong currents there can be harnessed to produce energy. On the same day, the Advanced Technology and Manufacturing Center at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth received approval for a $250,000 grant to begin the first phase of testing and analysis for the project.
"It was thrilling," said Kitt Johnson, the Edgartown resident and retired Arthur D. Little executive who led the application project. "March 31 was the day the world decided that Edgartown could move a step forward with a renewable energy project. Everything was coming together."
"This is huge," added selectman Art Smadbeck. "I'm very excited about it."
Edgartown was competing with a private company that applied for the rights to study the same part of the ocean.
The venture proposed by Edgartown is known as in-stream tidal generation, a way to harness the energy of the tides. The project envisions "tidal engines," similar to more familiar wind turbines, except they work underwater.
Experts agree that tidal power generation has many advantages over power from fossil fuels, or solar or wind power. Tides are measurable, predictable, and unfailingly consistent. Underwater turbines produce no emissions, and some designs operate completely underwater, invisible even to boats passing directly over them.
There are concerns about the affect on fish populations, on marine navigation, and on the sea floor where the turbines would be anchored.
The preliminary permit allows Edgartown to gather data for an economic analysis, create preliminary engineering plans, and study environmental impacts. The preliminary permit allows only study, not construction of any tidal engines or generation of electricity.
The scientists from U-Mass Dartmouth will focus on finding spots in Muskegat Channel where currents peak at five knots or more. If such locations are identified, a theoretical analysis indicates that energy can be generated at costs lower than the current price of power produced by a combination of coal, gas, and nuclear-fired plants.
"It's very complicated, very expensive testing," said Mr. Johnson. "For them to get the money to do this testing is critical to our project."
The study component is on a fast track. The federal permit requires the town to submit a work plan in 45 days, and it has one year to determine the economic feasibility and identify all of the factors necessary to comply with state regulations.
"We're fulfilling the promise here," said Mr. Johnson. "We want to make significant progress on it by the end of this summer. Within three years, we will be in a position to file the actual license application."