A Once-Promising Green Energy Technology Hits a Roadblock

Jurisdictional mayhem ensures massive delays if not outright failure in Nova Scotia Tidal NRG venture

By Ian Austen – April 29,2023

As part of The Times’s coverage of the global climate summit last year, I wrote an article about a project in Nova Scotia designed to create renewable electricity from the Bay of Fundy’s exceptional tides. Now, a regulatory roadblock means that the pilot project may soon shut down.

A project to create electricity with tidal power has been suspended over its lack of a permit. David Goldman for The New York Times
The Bay of Fundy’s extraordinary tides have long been viewed as a source of abundant electrical power. At the Minas Passage — the narrowest portion of the bay — the water level rises or falls about 17 meters, approximately the height of a four-story building, and could potentially create massive amounts of power.


Who Will Win the Race to Generate Electricity From Ocean Tides?]

Most power-generating schemes in the Bay of Fundy have been either disasters or disappointments, partly because they have placed their turbines on the seabed, where underwater debris, such as sunken logs, has destroyed them. Sustainable Marine, a German-owned company that focuses on tidal energy, took a new approach. Rather than place turbines on the seabed, Sustainable Marine places them on a barge that vaguely resembles a submarine flanked by two large outriggers.

Once the barge is in the water, an operator working remotely submerges the turbines or raises them when whales and other sea mammals are detected nearby or during heavy storms. The platform is covered in sensors and cameras for tracking fish and other marine life.

When I visited the PLAT-I 6.40 generating platform, as the barge is formally known, it was undergoing its early trials at the Bay of Fundy’s Grand Passage, where the tide is less extreme. Its success there meant that it was supposed to be towed up to the more powerful currents of the Minas Passage for more testing and data collection about its effects on fish and marine life. Once there, it was going to be connected to the electrical grid via one of five cables to the mainland.

The Minas Passage, where the test project was supposed to relocate.David Goldman for The New York Times

But the project was derailed before it could be moved. Sustainable Marine announced this week that because Fisheries and Oceans Canada, more commonly known as D.F.O., would not grant it a permit to set up the turbines in the Minas Passage, it was mothballing the platform and suspending operations in Nova Scotia.

“We were always hopeful that we would be able to agree to some sort of sensible process with D.F.O., but we just haven’t been able to,” Jason Hayman, the company’s chief executive, told me. “We’re extremely disappointed, to be very polite, about the situation. There is no rational explanation for it.”

The reasons for the denial, Mr. Hayman said, were not made clear through the process, which he found to be opaque. Mr. Hayman said that the company’s investors were unlikely to wait much longer for a permit, making a complete shutdown likely. Ending the project would put about 20 people in Canada out of work at a time when the company had intended to be expanding here.

Tim Houston, Nova Scotia’s premier, also voiced his disappointment.

“This is a massive blow to the tidal industry in our region,” he said in an email. “Jurisdictions all over the world would love to have something like Nova Scotia has in their backyard. I’m incredibly disappointed in our federal government and their unconcerned attitude toward an opportunity to green our grid.”

The fisheries department said in a statement that privacy rules prevented it from discussing any specifics of Sustainable Marine’s permit application.

“This is an area with fast moving tide, that is narrow, is difficult to see,” the department wrote. “Adequate monitoring plans are needed to evaluate any potential impact to fish and fish habitat.”

When asked why it had previously granted permits for the installation of two seabed generating turbines at the same test site, the department said that such decisions were “dependent on where the device is within the water column” and did not elaborate.

The generating platform is equipped with sensors and cameras for monitoring marine life.David Goldman for The New York Times
During the Great Passage tests, Mr. Hayman said, all of the data was regularly sent to the fisheries department as well as to academic researchers. He acknowledged that there could sometimes be visibility problems at the Minas Passage because the turbulent water could overwhelm fish sensors and fish tracking cameras. But he added that part of the purpose for testing there was to refine and improve marine life monitoring systems.

According to Mr. Hayman, there has never been a recorded incident of fish or marine mammals being harmed by the company’s systems in Canada or Europe. Sustainable Marine’s research to date, Mr. Hayman said, suggests that the water flow around the turbines directs fish away from the underwater blades.

The company is making one last attempt, through local members of Parliament, to reach an agreement with the D.F.O. for the project. So far, Mr. Hayman said, the project has cost about 60 million Canadian dollars, with about half that money coming from governments.

“It’s absolute economic vandalism, the fact that some quite low-level fish and fish habitat protection program can shut down something like this,” Mr. Hayman said. “There’s a glimmer of hope for us that hopefully someone in a jurisdiction where this can be done will want to pick this. To be honest, they’ll get a bargain. Because they’ll get something that’s 85 percent of the way there that’s largely funded by other governments.”

A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

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