Halifax company building its first commercial Fundy tidal power unit

·3 min read
Jamie MacNeil of BigMoon Power and Joe Hines of East Coast Metal Fabrication look over a steel beam that will be used to build BigMoon's first commercial tidal power unit. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)
Jamie MacNeil of BigMoon Power and Joe Hines of East Coast Metal Fabrication look over a steel beam that will be used to build BigMoon's first commercial tidal power unit. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)

A Halifax-based company is building its first commercial tidal power generator in Cape Breton and it expects to begin selling electricity soon after it installs its technology in the Bay of Fundy later this year.

Jamie MacNeil, executive vice-president of BigMoon Power, said the first of 18 units is being assembled at East Coast Metal Fabrication in the Sydport Industrial Park.

Each unit has a large wheel suspended between the pontoons of a 30-metre barge anchored to the ocean floor. The barge can swivel to remain facing the current.

"It's a 21st-century adaptation of very old technology in a Roman paddlewheel," MacNeil said.

The equipment has to be robust to withstand the harsh conditions of a saltwater environment with some of the highest tides in the world, and it has to be protected from debris while minimizing the impact on fish and marine mammals, he said.

The barge-and-wheel system can do all of that and still produce electricity that is affordable, because BigMoon has spent about $20 million on research and development over the last six years, MacNeil said.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

BigMoon has been in operation since 2015, testing its theories and prototypes in the Bay of Fundy, and now has a contract to supply electricity to Nova Scotia Power.

The company will receive subsidized rates for its energy, but only at the beginning, MacNeil said. After that, the project will be competitive with other forms of renewable energy.

He said he thinks they can compete.

"We know that we can and we have taken a big step forward in the contracts that we already have in being able to demonstrate that the price of tidal is coming down dramatically."

Over the next three to four years, the company plans to build a total of 18 units, each generating about half a megawatt of electricity, or enough to power about 500 homes.

The infrastructure to get power to shore through a subsea cable already exists, through the Fundy Ocean Research Centre for Energy, which was set up by the federal and provincial governments to encourage tidal power production.

Several companies have tried and some have failed to produce electricity from the Bay of Fundy.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

Earlier this year, a company called Sustainable Marine Energy began testing floating turbines in the area and last year, BigMoon won a contract to remove a failed turbine installed by another company.

MacNeil is confident that BigMoon's engineers have come up with a solution to the difficult operating environment.

"There have been some successes," he said.

"There have been some setbacks, but all of those who now remain in the energy business here in Nova Scotia are all on the precipice of doing something very exciting and that is to actually start producing electrons for the people of Nova Scotia."

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

Joe Hines, chief operating officer at East Coast Metal Fabrication, said assembling the first unit will create up to 20 full-time jobs for up to six months.

Putting together the other 17 units will add more jobs over time, he said.

"We have hired some already as we've been staffing up for other jobs and we'll be transitioning some of the experienced people over to this project, as well as adding some new to it."

MacNeil said tidal power will be an additional renewable energy source alongside solar and wind power, but its benefit is that it's predictable.

Looking across Canada

He said tidal power will add enough electricity to the grid to allow the province to export energy and will allow the company to build its platforms and place them elsewhere.

"It's not our intention to build nine megawatts and pat ourselves on the back and call it a day," MacNeil said.

"We want to take advantage of the energy that's in the water here in Nova Scotia, but also in other areas like Newfoundland, like in Quebec, like in British Columbia."

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