Massachusetts Maritime Academy to tap the tides for energy

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Currents could be the wave of the future at Massachusetts Maritime Academy.
Jul 29, 2011 –
Buzzards Bay

Already host to a wind turbine, solar panels and other alternative energy projects, the maritime academy is slotted to demonstrate a hydrokinetic turbine that will harness water currents for electricity production.


"The one area where we have not taken advantage of our location ... is the canal current," said Adm. Richard Gurnon, president of the state college.


The 1.4-meter turbine was designed by Free Flow Power Corp., a Boston-based renewable energy developer. It's bidirectional design allows its blades to change directions with the current. The turbine's spinning blades should produce one kilowatt of electricity, about enough to power a house, said Lt. Hung "Tom" Pham, projects officer for marine operations at the maritime academy.


The hydrokinetic turbine effort, dubbed the Muskeget Channel Demonstration Project, was funded by a $98,000 grant from Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and drew on research from the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. The device will charge an ultracapacitor battery from Boston-based FastCap Systems.


"This whole project is about demonstrating technology using Massachusetts resources," Pham said.


During an Aug. 15 demonstration of the turbine, officials will bring the device into the Muskeget Channel between Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket and attempt to generate power, Gurnon said.


The findings will help support the town of Edgartown's Federal Energy Regulatory Commission filing for a pilot project to develop hydrokinetic power, said Stephen Barrett, of Harris Miller Miller & Hanson Inc., the town's consultant on the project.


"They'll be making some environmental observations and making some underwater noise observations," Barrett said of the Aug. 15 demonstration.


Edgartown has already received a FERC permit to study the idea's feasibility, he added.


The maritime academy could help Edgartown develop the first successful hydrokinetic power project in the state, but others have struggled to launch similar projects in the recent past.


In 2007, Natural Currents Energy Services LLC received a preliminary FERC permit to install a test tidal turbine in the Cape Cod Canal, and in 2009 company officials announced their intention to install a turbine pending further permits.


The company, which at one point was in partnership talks with the maritime academy, called off the project when "some of the promised support didn't come through," said Roger Bason, Natural Currents' president.


About half of the maritime academy's students are studying engineering. The cadets will work as maintenance technicians on the hydrokinetic turbine project, Pham said, adding the effort will give a new generation of engineers experience with innovative alternative energy technology.


"That's why it's so critical for us to get involved," Pham said. "We can test the alternative technology and teach our students."


If the turbine, which was already tested in the Mississippi River, is successful, Gurnon hopes to develop the capacity to produce hydrokinetic energy equal to the maritime academy's 660-kilowatt wind turbine, which saves the school about $250,000 in electricity costs annually.


"It's truly the next step," Gurnon said. "If we can solve this, the potential truly is to light the world with water."