Standing on the mainland side of the Cape Cod Canal, in a spot tucked underneath the railroad bridge, Teledyne Marine Group applications engineer Jeffrey Den Herder held a large remote control for a small red boat that weaved back and forth in the swift-moving waters in front of him. The boat was actually a high-tech device that uses sound waves to measure water depth and the speed of current—information that will be used to generate a three-dimensional map of the underwater area there.
The mapping was being done to see if the site is suitable for developing and testing hydrokinetic turbines.
Mr. Den Herder was one of several researchers and officials from a variety of marine technology companies who were in Buzzards Bay Wednesday morning, June 29, to get a close-up look at the site. A team from University of Massachusetts Dartmouth was also on hand with special underwater photographic equipment to capture tens of thousands of images of the underwater environment there.
“Before we can put in a test site for the turbines,” said Mr. Den Herder as he flicked the joystick on the remote, “we have to see what’s down there first.”
The work was part of an ongoing effort by a nonprofit renewable energy development corporation to bring what would be the nation’s first-ever water turbine testing facility to the canal.
The facility would be used by water turbine manufacturing companies to test their products.
Marine Renewable Energy Collaborative (MRECo) is behind the project. Water turbines that produce electricity are one part of MRECo’s goal to foster the growth of marine renewable energy through offshore wind, waves and tides.
The group met at the Army Corps of Engineers field house on Academy Road near the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, next to the railroad bridge. The proposed test site is next to the mainland side abutment of the railroad bridge, tucked out of the way of marine traffic.
As proposed, the test site would be used by three different hydrokinetic companies: Littoral Power, ECO-Auger, and Rathlin. The area will give the companies room to test the designs of their own turbines in the protection of the canal, one at a time.
MRECo is still in the application process for the project and requires approval from organizations like the Army Corps of Engineers, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration before it can begin construction.
John R. Miller, executive director of the collaborative, has said the Cape Cod Canal is an ideal location because of the velocity of the tidal flow. Companies need at least four knots to test their devices and would like six knots or more. Under the railroad bridge, the tidal flow gets up to seven knots, he said.
Mr. Miller said a test site in Bourne would be the only one of its kind in the United States. There is a similar facility in Orkney, Scotland, and the cost for US companies to travel there to test their turbines is prohibitive. The Scotland site is also smaller than the one envisioned for Bourne, he said.
He said the collaborative is aware of US companies, as well as colleges and universities, that need to conduct testing now. They cannot because it costs too much to either travel to Scotland or build their own test site.
“You can do it in a tank or swimming pool, but that’s rudimentary. To really see how it operates, you have to get it in the ocean,” he said.
Opponents of hydrokinetic electricity have criticized it for being detrimental to marine habitats. Students and staff from the UMass Dartmouth School for Marine Science and Technology (SMAST) recorded video of the sea floor in the testing site to make sure it was not disturbing any marine life, and to see what the composition of the soil is.
UMass Dartmouth SMAST graduate student Christy Draghetti had her doubts about the negative impact on marine life.
“I think the current in the canal is strong, so we aren’t going to see any heavy assemblages of organisms,” she said. “Mostly just mud and rocks.”
Assuming permitting and installation of the turbine are successful, Bourne can expect to see the turbine site developed by November 2017.