More hydropower

For the first time since 1992, Maine now has an inventory of existing and potential hydropower resources. A study recently completed for the Governor’s Energy Office identified 110 sites at powered and non-powered dams with the potential for installation of 193 megawatts of additional capacity. Based on current market conditions, the study concluded that only 47 of those sites, with 56 megawatts of potential capacity, showed significant development potential for conventional hydropower development.

But emerging technologies, especially those associated with the hydrokinetic industry, could play a significant role in Maine’s hydropower future. Hydrokinetic projects use the current of a river or the naturally occurring tidal flow of the ocean to create electricity. Various technologies are being developed to capture that kinetic energy, and many applications do not require a dam to create the necessary hydraulic power.

The energy office was confronted by a lack of consistent data to fully evaluate site potential for hydrokinetic development. But it concluded that the state’s resources are conducive to marine and hydrokinetic development. “Maine is well positioned to play a leadership role in the development of the national marine and hydrokinetic industry based on proven industry-academic partnerships and an existing supply chain,” wrote the authors of the study.

The study offered several recommendations:

* Develop consistent data to evaluate hydrokinetic sites fully.

* Identify marine and hydrokinetic sites in proximity to Maine communities with high cost of power, which could allow for those high costs to be reduced while offering opportunities for market entry by technology developers.

* Identify infrastructure projects at or in the vicinity of marine hydrokinetic resources, which could offer the opportunity for reduced installation and maintenance costs.

* Identify existing conventional hydropower that could incorporate new hydrokinetic units.

* Use the Adaptive Management Plan process governing the Cobscook Bay Tidal Energy Project’s licensing requirements as a model for other projects.

Maine now has a statutory limitation preventing companies with more than 100 megawatts of electricity generation capacity – with the notable exception of wind power – from qualifying for renewable energy credits. That 100-megawatt limitation should be repealed by the Maine Legislature during this current session.

Like wind power, hydropower produces “green” energy that involves no carbon emissions into the atmosphere. But, while wind turbines operate only when the wind blows, the regularity of tidal movement and river currents gives hydropower the added advantage of predictability, making it a much more reliable source of energy. And, modern designs can minimize negative impacts on anadromous fish and other marine life.

Removal of the 100-megawatt cap also would allow Maine, should it opt to do so, to purchase electricity from several massive Canadian hydropower projects, likely at rates considerably more favorable than those that wind power developers are allowed to charge.

Patrick Woodcock, who heads the Governor’s Energy Office, characterized the hydropower study as an attempt “to start a conversation about the resource.” Because of Maine’s obsessive fixation with wind power, that conversation is long overdue.

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