by Gina Hamilton
Coastal Journal staff
WISCASSET - In August, a New York based company, Natural Currents LLC, filed an application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to explore the possibilities of harnessing tidal power in the Sheepscot River. It was accepted by FERC on August 20.
The town is not unhappy about the possibility of a tidal energy plant somewhere along the Sheepscot. Far from it; Wiscasset needs industry that can exist in harmony with its already strong working waterfront economies. Harmony with existing economic resources was one reason why the coal gasification plant proposed by National RE/sources of Greenwich, Connecticut was defeated last November. Lobstermen and users of the river and side channels feared pollution of the fisheries and loss of prime fishing grounds owing to barge traffic.
National RE/sources was mentioned in Natural Currents’ FERC application: "Connecticut-based National RE/sources, a real estate development and investment firm, continues to seek approval to build a $1.5 billion coal gasification plant in Wiscasset. The proposed plant, if approved and constructed, will be Maine's largest source of carbon dioxide at 4.7 million metric tons annually, contributing to the global warming problem rather than alleviating it. The new and as-yet unproven technology of carbon capture and storage, which National RE/sources plans to use, has been shown by many scientists specializing in the field to be inappropriate for the geology of Maine and the rest of the east coast."
Even though they would have been naturally interested in a pollution-free energy source that could co-exist with the fisheries, clam beds and recreational harbors, the town questioned why no one from Natural Currents approached the board of selectmen or the town manager to discuss the proposal. “It would have been nice if someone from Natural Currents had come to talk to us about this,” Town Manager Arthur Faucher said.
The deadline for filing comments, motions to intervene, completing applications or notices of intent to file competing applications is 60 days from the notice, or by October 20. Already, the Sheepscot Valley Conservation Association has filed for intervenor status in the project.
Enter Chewonki Foundation.
Chewonki has proposed a competing application in partnership with the town of Wiscasset to help the town get the permit themselves. At last week’s select board meeting, the board gave Chewonki the green light.
Chewonki is well known for its own demonstration projects, in solar energy, hydrogen energy, biofuel energy, and next spring, wind power. Peter Arnold, head of Chewonki’s Pathways to a Sustainable Future program, said that Chewonki’s interest is working with Wiscasset to preserve local control over the resource.
“If we are granted the permit, we will have three years to do research in the area. We’ll be able to determine whether tidal energy in the Sheepscot can be commercialized.”
Then, Arnold says, there will be years of working with regulatory agencies to make sure that the environment is not harmed and fisheries and the working waterfront are not impacted unduly.
“Tidal energy is still in its earliest infancy,” he said. “No one even has any equipment in the water as of yet.”
The permit, which is called a preliminary permit, will give Wiscasset and Chewonki time to research equipment options, and determine whether it makes economic sense to commercialize tidal energy in this area.
“The project may be multilayered,” Arnold said. “If it can’t be commercialized, we may look at whether a meaningful, fundable demonstration project is possible. That would be interesting.”
For Wiscasset itself, having local control over its resources may allow it to use whatever electricity is generated on its working waterfront, for local manufacturing, or feed it into the grid. “But the electricity would be used or sold for the benefit of Wiscasset citizens,” Arnold said.
Maine could one day become known as the home of tidal power generation and offshore wind generation, easily producing most or all electricity the state requires from entirely renewable sources. “At the very least, renewables will play a significant role in Maine’s energy future,” Arnold said.
But first, the town and Chewonki have to win the permit. Arnold is currently working on a competing permit application.