Eastport, Maine—the U.S.' easternmost city—is home to the world's most dramatic tidal swings. But in recent years, this community of 1,600 has found itself at the center of an industrial enterprise that citizens thought had abandoned them forever—harnessing the tides to generate electricity. Amid Eastport's abandoned sardine factories and often-empty storefronts, engineers have been testing a new generation of tidal turbines that could power the region's homes and businesses without adverse environmental effects.
Tidal power used to be extremely disruptive to the marine environment, as it involved damming a waterway and forcing the currents—and marine life—through conduits housing turbines. Under President Roosevelt, who summered in the area, construction started on a massive tidal project that would have dammed up local bays, probably dooming the sardine and scallop fisheries on which local people depended. For fiscal reasons, Congress nixed the project.
The new tidal technologies, inspired by wind turbines that require no dam, are mounted on the seafloor where they slowly spin in the current out of sight and beneath the hulls of passing vessels. Ongoing tests by the University of Maine suggest no effect on marine life, which appear to avoid the devices.
"The tides are about as reliable as anything in nature, so you can predict years in advance how much power you will have at a given time—that's a great advantage," says Paul Jacobson of Electric Power Research Institute, which released a 2006 survey of North American tidal power sites that jump-started interest in the region. "I think 2011 and 2012 are going to be an exciting time because we will have some significant deployments by a couple of U.S. companies."
Until recently, American tidal energy companies were running behind their foreign rivals with governments that provide more-extensive support.