Tidal Project Draws Widespread Critics

Fisheries Groups and Competitors Alike Weigh in with Public Comments on Experimental Venture

Gazette Senior Writer

The National Marine Fisheries Service has raised a cautionary flag about a tidal hydroelectric power project proposed for Vineyard Sound.

"The tidal energy project proposed under this application represents novel technology with the potential for significant adverse effects to all marine resources that utilize Vineyard Sound for spawning, rearing and migration, including finfish and marine mammals," wrote Mary A. Colligan, assistant regional administrator for protected resources, in a July 18 letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The fisheries service letter is among the responses filed with the commission concerning the proposal by the Massachusetts Tidal Energy Company of Washington, D.C., to create a hydroelectric tidal energy farm in the Sound.

The company has proposed placing up to 150 submerged propeller units - technically known as tidal in stream energy devices, or TISEC devices - between Martha's Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands. The devices, powered by the tidal flow, would generate electricity that would be fed into the power grid in Falmouth and Tisbury.

The commission now will decide whether to grant the company a preliminary permit. Under that permit, the company would have 36 months to conduct an economic analysis, preliminary engineering plans and a study of environmental impacts. Based on the studies, the company would decide whether to apply for a permit to build and operate the project.

There is no deadline for the preliminary permit, according to commission spokesman Celeste Miller.

But Ms. Miller said Wednesday that she expects the commission to issue a decision in the coming months.

In its application, Massachusetts Tidal estimates each device would generate from 500 kilowatts to 2 megawatts, with each device able to provide power to about 750 homes. The company estimates the built-out tidal farm could generate between 25 and 300 megawatts at any given moment.

Others responding to the Massachusetts Tidal filing include the Naushon Trust Inc., the owner of Naushon Island, which is adjacent to the proposed site; a potential competitor, Verdant Power LLC of Maryland; and a private citizen in New Hampshire who has questioned the Massachusetts Tidal's plans. The comment period for the preliminary permit application ended in July.

In a July 10 letter, a member of the board of trustees of the Naushon Trust, Paul Elias, requested that the trust be named an intervenor in the energy commission's review of the proposed project.

"Generally, the people who live near these projects need to be involved in the process," Mr. Elias said Wednesday. "As a board, it's our responsibility to be in the loop and informed."

Naushon's standing as an intervenor makes the trust party to the proceeding. The trust has the power to appeal a decision made by the commission.

On July 3, Verdant Power LLC of Rockville, Md., filed a motion to intervene and protest in the commission's review.

In its motion, filed by attorney Gilbert P. Sperling, Verdant identifies itself as a developer of kinetic hydropower projects, one that has received a preliminary permit from the energy commission for an energy project at Roosevelt Island in the East River in New York city.

Verdant's application for the Roosevelt Island project, the company states, demonstrates that Verdant is "a serious developer with the knowledge and capability to develop kinetic hydropower projects."

Verdant claims that a single company, identified as Oceana or the Tidal Energy Company and its affiliates have filed at least 10 applications for tidal energy projects across the United States, including the Vineyard Sound project.

Because of the way the energy commission's review system works, Verdant contends, the first company to seek a preliminary permit for a project site almost certainly will secure the permit, effectively deterring competitive filings for years.

Oceana and its affiliates, Verdant argues, are not qualified to pursue hydroelectric tidal projects because they lack either the necessary technology or any agreement to license the technology.

"At a minimum, awarding permits to companies like (Tidal Energy) that realistically stand no chance of filing for a license within the period of any preliminary permit issued to them delays development of permit sites by bona fide developers for at least three years," Mr. Sperling wrote.

In a July 17 letter filed with the commission, Massachusetts Tidal fired back with a motion to dismiss Verdant's filing.

"We believe that the motion to intervene is outside the scope of Verdant's legitimate interests and that Verdant's entire filing is based on inaccurate assumptions and unfounded credibility attacks that warrant dismissal of Verdant's request for lack of merit," general counsel Mike Hoover wrote.

"Our company is neither incompetent nor interested in selling sites," Mr. Hoover also wrote. "In fact, Verdant's assumption shows its fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of preliminary permits because they are not transferable."

Mr. Hoover claims that Verdant has no proximity to or legitimate interest in the Vineyard Sound site, and therefore should not be granted intervenor status; that Massachusetts Tidal doesn't specify a technology for the site because that will come after a site analysis; that a lack of commercial success by Verdant is responsible for any competitive disadvantage it faces in the Vineyard Sound permit process; that Massachusetts Tidal does have a technology of its own; and that Massachusetts Tidal has disclosed and will disclose further its qualifications and financial backing.

An attorney who served as an environmental advisor in the Clinton White House, now conducting due diligence for a private equity fund concerning possible investments in tidal hydroelectric power, also vouched for Oceana.

Based on the diligence, Peter T. Frampton wrote in a July 18 letter to the energy commission: "The fund I represent is seriously interested in providing major capital to Oceana and believes that Oceana has by far the best chance of exploiting tidal energy in the United States in the next decade."

Another critique of the Oceana filings, including the Vineyard Sound project, has been submitted by Robert Cinq-Mars of Lee, N.H. Mr. Cinq-Mars said he holds a degree in electrical engineering and has studied renewable energy for decades.

Mr. Cinq-Mars said Oceana filed for a series of permits across the nation apparently in response to a detailed study by the Electric Power Institute in Palo Alto, Calif.

He said tidal hydroelectric projects, unlike dam technology, can be installed in almost any body of water by individuals or corporations with limited expertise and resources, and the Oceana filings represent a blanket permitting of vast resources.

In a July 17 response, Oceana's general counsel, Mr. Hoover, said Oceana's proposals will become more specific as further tests are conducted at the project sites. As for blanket permitting, Mr. Hoover wrote: ". . . .in order for a startup company to secure financing to undertake any meaningful advances in this industry, investors require the potential for growth before committing risk capital."

If Oceana had not submitted its applications when it did, Mr. Hoover said, competing organizations likely would have requested some of the same areas.

Comments on the Massachusetts Tidal application also came from the Massachusetts Historical Commission and the Association to Preserve Cape Cod.

The state commission is interested in the effect of the project on historic and archaeological resources.

The Cape association, based in Barnstable, echoes the National Marine Fisheries Service in questioning the effect of the propeller units on marine species in the water column.

The association also noted that two other power projects have been proposed for the Cape and Islands area - the Cape Wind wind farm on Horseshoe Shoals in Nantucket Sound, and developer Daniel Cashman's proposed wind turbines in Buzzards Bay. Each is regulated by a different government entity. "The growing movement to develop our coastal waters must be regulated in a consistent and predictable manner," the association wrote.