Background

Tidal Power in the Bay of Fundy

In Nova Scotia, the ocean is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and end of all things. Nova Scotians share more than 8,000 kilometers of undulating of coastline. No one lives more than 80 kilometers from the sea, most can walk there easily. The teeming salt waters have provided food for Mi’kmaq communities for thousands of years, created an easy way for early European settlers to transport raw materials and goods to market, and entertained untold tourists for generations.

And now, the capricious waters of the North Atlantic will be providing energy for Nova Scotians—and potentially their neighbors in Canada and the United States—thanks to the prodigious ebb and flow of the world’s highest tides. The Bay of Fundy has a broad, conical shape that funnels rough ocean waters into the Minas Basin, creating a breeding ground for the endangered Northern Right whale and enormous opportunities for renewable tidal power. That fortunate confluence of natural resources has attracted the interest of both researchers and big business.

Unlike wind and solar power, tidal energy is in its infancy, with just a handful of projects underway around the globe. A few are venerable by renewable energy project standards, but the majority, including several large projects in South Korea and the United Kingdom, are slated for completion later this decade. By being relatively early to the game, Canada could position itself to become a major player in the newest—and one of the most promising—cleantech sectors. Unlike wind and solar, tidal power is predictable and constant, and that's a marketable advantage. Better still, recent technological improvements have increased the number of potential sites where tidal power can be successfully deployed.

In Nova Scotia, FORCE—Fundy Ocean Research Centre for Energy—has recently garnered $20 million in federal funding, $11 million of which will be used this year to install four undersea cables that will connect tidal energy turbines to the province’s electrical grid. Each cable has the potential to carry up to 16MW of energy, enough to power 20,000 homes. FORCE is working with several partners on the project, including Nova Scotia Power, Minas Basin Pulp and Power, and Alstom, the French energy and transportation giant that is making an enormous push into cleantech.

"This game is not a sprint—it's a marathon," says Doug Keefe, executive director of FORCE. "Right now the UK definitely leads, and the US is showing signs of entering the market in a big way. But Nova Scotia has some distinct advantages: the Bay of Fundy, some early investment from government and the private sector, and a commitment to offer a fixed price (feed-in tariffs) for tidal energy. If you combine that with our soon-to-arrive submarine cable—giving us the largest in-stream transmission capacity in the world—we have sent a strong message that Canada is a serious contender."

The $20 million commitment in the Bay of Fundy is important, but this sector’s leaders are making investments measured in the billions, so Canada must quickly decide what role it wants to play in the future of tidal energy.

And that’s why research is a vital part of the FORCE mandate, according to Keefe, with the National Research Council actively involved, and the US DOE watching results closely. Eight collaborative projects with teams from universities and private industry are working to make the technology reliable and efficient, and determine the long-term environmental impact that would come from deploying state-of-the-art equipment in a sensitive ecosystem.

"For FORCE, that includes watching fish movement using tagging and sonar equipment. For developers, that means designing a turbine that can withstand Fundy and deliver power at reasonable cost. Additionally, we are developing a research program and of course collaborate with researchers who are looking at everything from resource assessment—how much power is really in the Bay, and the estimates seem to continue to grow—to near and far field effects of tidal energy extraction."

Certainly, Nova Scotia could use the economic boost that would come exploiting new sources of renewable energy, especially if it’s developed in concert with the province’s world-class offshore wind resources. From an almost-standing start, Premier Darrell Dexter’s NDP government has established ambitious energy goals that will see the province renewably source 40 percent of its electricity by 2020. New regulations will also create a feed-in tariff that will promote additional tidal power projects by making them economically viable.

"Energy security, diversity, and affordability will be the defining features of this century, and governments recognize that while the private sector is the most active ingredient, it's critical government shape the new rules of the game—rules that must include new sources of supply," says Keefe. "At this point coal is much cheaper than wind, and definitely tidal. It's great to say markets should decide, but markets operate in a context, and governments help define parts of it—often acting as the tipping point to commercial growth."

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