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Ebbing away

Michael McCarthy, Vancouver Courier, July 11, 2008

Martin Burger pulls his van up to the pumps on West Georgia near Stanley Park. Gas is $1.50 a litre right now, and Burger’s prediction is the price will continue to rise. He’s not the only one; the law of supply and demand being what it is, many experts think predict the costs of energy-whether oil, electricity, natural gas, or even “renewables” such as wind and solar-have nowhere to go but up. But while others talk about carbon taxes as a solution to saving the planet, Burger has a bigger vision for B.C. He thinks investment in truly green power, such as the province’s untapped tidal energy, is a better way to go.

Burger drives close to the Lions Gate Bridge. Down at the seawall, he points out the old lighthouse just west of the bridge.

“The current here flows at eight knots during tide, which I estimate to be 275 cubic metres during a six-hour tide. That would produce about 140 to 200 megawatts,” he says, adding he’s talked with the Vancouver Aquarium about initiatives for energy conservation. “What we really need to do is build a tidal demonstration unit here and raise public consciousness about the power of the tides before we pollute the entire planet.”

While the public is focused on new renewable energy such as solar, wind and run-of-river projects, Burger has worked behind the scenes for more than a decade to secure funding for what he calls “true green energy.”

And with the price of gas, he expects the provincial government would pay even passing interest when experts describe British Columbia as the “world’s largest potential source of tidal energy,” but evidently such is not the case. According to Burger, the province has shown almost no interest in tidal research and focuses on reaping huge profits from oil and natural gas royalties.

“I think everything the government is saying about renewable energy is insincere,” claims Burger. “They recognize the environment is a hot political issue, and so is the rising cost of energy, but what they are doing is mainly spin. They are spending a fortune on selling the carbon tax when what they should be doing is investing in some serious research and development on real green energy for the future.”

Burger is founder and chair of the board of directors of Blue Energy International, a Vancouver-based company attempting to commercialize the Davis Hydro Turbine, a highly efficient underwater vertical-axis windmill. (The late Barry Davis was an aerospace engineer for the Canadian Avro Arrow project who applied his knowledge of hydrodynamics to creating a tidal energy generator.) However, you may soon describe Blue Energy as an “ex-Vancouver-based company,” because Burger says his company is about to pull the plug and move to New Brunswick, whose provincial government is extremely excited about the potential of developing tidal energy into a viable industry.

“I have met with political and industry leaders all over the world,” says Burger, driving back to Blue Energy offices on West Broadway. “And in the last few months we have been besieged with requests for information. Over the years I have written hundreds of letters to the B.C. government but B.C. Hydro won’t even meet for a cup of tea anymore. They say their mandate forbids them from investing in research and development, but that’s just a bunch of crap. They aren’t interested in investing a single penny in the world’s largest energy source. That’s like Alberta ignoring oil. Hydro is incapable of innovation. Heck, they’re still wearing plaid pants and sideburns there.”

Tidal energy could retire all of B.C.’s emissions debt, says Burger, and we could export power all the way to California. “The government isn’t just ignoring tidal energy; it’s wilful obstruction. You look at people like Rick Neufeld, he’s been an oil man his whole life. Oil and gas royalties are what really interests this government.”

The website of the B.C. government reads: “Richard Neufeld was appointed Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources on June 16, 2005. Before entering provincial politics, Mr. Neufeld owned and operated a business in Fort Nelson. He has been involved in the oil and gas industry most of his life.” For most of his own life, Burger has been an energy consultant. From 1990 to 2000 Burger collaborated with Davis to develop and promote a hydro turbine. He has been a keynote speaker at many conferences deliberating a post-oil future. Prior to founding Blue Energy in 1997, he played key roles in the development of several world-scale construction projects in the petrochemical energy and mining sectors. To date, Blue Energy, a privately funded and operated company with five full-time staff and a team of consulting engineers, has secured about $5 million in investment.

Blue Energy is not the only company in B.C. exploring the potential for tidal power. At his offices in downtown Vancouver, Glen Darou says Clean Current Incorporated, a private Canadian company “developing technology to extract electricity from ocean tidal currents,” has already completed eight months of testing its own horizontal axis turbine model at Race Rocks south of Victoria. Along with chief operating officer Virgil Young (former vice-president of Lockheed Martin), Darou — former CFO of Shell Oil in Canada and Teck Cominco — leads an engineering team of seven full-time staff.

“The technology of our turbine design is fairly simple. There’s only one moving part. What we have found from testing is that the bearings got hot, so we have changed the design and are now using sealed bearings. With tidal power, you only have slack tide for an hour a day so you need to design a turbine that needs minimal maintenance, especially in winter when seas can get rough.”

The company has designed a removable maintenance module at its site on Mitchell Island where the turbine is serviced.

“Our plan is to develop new technology here in Canada and sell it to the world,” says Darou during a tour of the Mitchell Island location. “We can start an entirely new manufacturing industry. The global potential for exports is huge, but the provincial government in B.C. doesn’t seem to have considered the economic development angle yet.”

What is holding back the development of this huge new industry? Darou says the initial price of any tidal energy produced would not be competitive in the current electricity market. Initial costs would be 12 to 23 cents a kilowatt, about double the costs of competitive energy, although costs would drop sharply after initial installation and operation. Furthermore, he says B.C. Hydro has a mandate to deliver the lowest possible costs to its ratepayers but no mandate to support research and development.

“There is also the problem that B.C. is currently rich in other sources of energy,” says Darou. “And tidal energy does not possess a constituency as yet. This is really a political issue. The federal government is backing biodiesel and carbon sequestering, and the provincial government is promoting the carbon tax.” Darou says Clean Current has partnered with the Nova Scotia Department of Energy and will soon move its turbine research there.

It will join a U.S. and Irish company for a minimum of one year’s testing of the turbine at Minas Passage. He hopes the project will show a cost of 12 cents per gigawatt hour. There are basically two ways of creating tidal power: tidal dams or ocean currents. Dams are based on using a “barrage” at a bay or estuary with a large tidal range. Power is generated primarily at ebb tides as the barrage creates a significant head of water, much like a hydroelectric dam. This technology is well established. A 20-megawatt facility has been operating at Annapolis, Nova Scotia since 1984. However, estuaries are sensitive ecosystems, and barrage-based tidal power is not considered a truly sustainable resource. Tidal turbines use fast-flowing tidal currents. The gravitational pull of the moon causes water to flow in from the ocean twice a day on the flood tides, and outward during ebb tides. Additional monthly and annual lunar cycles vary the strength of these currents. Narrow and shallow constrictions produce the fastest and most powerful movements of current. Tidal energy is independent of weather and climate change and follows the predictable relationship of lunar orbits known many years in advance.

One drawback for tidal energy is that power is only produced six to 12 hours a day. This can cause problems for the electrical transmission grid. However, a new Scottish invention called Gentech claims to solve the problem of intermittency and will transit power 24 hours a day. Harm to marine life from turbines is predicted as minimal; the main issue remains the initial high capital costs for research, development and installation, and the substantial time lag between investment and return.

Now that gasoline prices have reached $1.50 a litre, and some predictions by financial experts over the next five years have that price doubling, the high initial investment cost is no longer an issue for some jurisdictions, like Washington State where planners are seriously looking at the construction of a tidal bridge over Admiralty Inlet in Puget Sound. “The state has set targets to create renewable energy sources and they don’t consider hydropower to be a renewable resource,” says Darou. “Here in B.C., Discovery Passage is the motherlode of all tidal energy. The potential for tidal energy in B.C. is huge, and there are absolutely no emissions.”

At B.C. Hydro, spokesperson Susan Danard confirms the utility has no mandate to fund research and development of tidal power. Although Hydro just put out a call for new proposals for renewable energy sources such as run of river, solar and wind, tidal power doesn’t even register on the radar. “We are bound by provincial guidelines that require proven technologies,” says Danard. “We have a responsibility to protect our ratepayers, and an obligation to see if any new technology is affordable. That does not necessarily exclude tidal. Who knows where we will be a year from now as the price of gas increases? As far as putting money into research and development, you’d better talk to the Ministry of Mines, Energy and Petroleum.”

An examination of Hydro’s website provides scant information about tidal power. A report titled Green Energy Study for British Columbia, Phase 2, Mainland 2002, reads: “Because many of them (possible tidal energy sites) are in the early stages of research and development, the energy production and cost estimate data are limited and have a high degree of uncertainty compared with those for other resources. The resource assessment identified 55 sites with current speeds over two metres per second which would yield a gross annual energy potential in the order of 20,000 gigawatt hours. It is expected that the number and capacity of potential tidal current sites could increase as the application of the technology to the resource is advanced.”

The cost of tidal energy is very site specific, and influenced by geography, distance to grid, and speed and volume of the current. The 2002 study estimated the costs to be 11 to 25 cents per kilowatt-hour but if design developments continued, costs at the time were expected to fall to between five and seven cents. However, costs for items such as steel and labour have since risen.

The premier site for tidal power in B.C. is Discovery Passage; approximately 20 miles long, it separates Quadra and Sonora Islands from Vancouver Island. Discovery Passage connects with Johnstone Strait, another huge source of tidal energy. Dodd Narrows near Nanaimo and passages in Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlottes) are also seen as major power-producing locations. “Based on realistic assumptions for near-future technology,” reads the report, “B.C.’s tidal-current resources could account for 40 per cent of Hydro’s current annual power generation.”

At the Ministry of Mines, Energy and Petroleum Resources, communications director Graham Currie says the ministry’s position is that tidal energy is “not at a commercial stage,” and that estimates of the price of tidal energy are double that of wind power so it is hard to justify support of tidal projects.

“Electricity rates are regulated by the B.C. Utilities Commission, and they want the lowest possible rate for ratepayers,” says Currie. “The province has established a fund available for research into renewables. I believe $50,000 went in 2006 to a study near the Queen Charlotte Islands.”

The B.C. Climate Action Secretariat has established the ICE (Innovative Clean Energy) Fund “to accelerate the development of new energy technologies that have the potential to solve energy and environmental issues and create significant socio-economic benefits for all British Columbians.” ICE will generate $25 million from a levy on all final sales of electricity, natural gas, fuel oil and grid-delivered propane in B.C. Clean Current’s Darou says he has applied for a major grant from ICE and hopes to hear positive results soon. Blue Energy’s Burger, on the other hand, says he has never been informed of ICE but it doesn’t matter. He has given up on the B.C. government and is moving to Moncton, New Brunswick soon.

“I don’t take it (ICE) seriously,” he says. “$50,000? Come on. That’s just peanuts, small dollars handed out to friends and insiders, just more spin to pretend that they are interested in renewables. If the B.C. government was at all interested in tidal power, they would have already invested money in a trial model instead of leaving it up to the private sector. The current electricity grid in B.C. supports 10,000 megawatts, and just a tidal bridge from Vancouver to Vancouver Island alone would generate 12,000 megawatts. The tidal potential for the province is five times the current energy grid. British Columbia is the Saudi Arabia of the planet when it comes to renewable energy sources. With global warming devastating the climate, it’s time to get serious about real sources of renewable energy.”

Blue Energy surveyed north coast communities five years ago about adopting tidal energy over diesel, and according to the company, there was overwhelming support. “B.C. could already have had energy solutions in place before the current oil crisis hit,” says Blue Energy’s media spokesperson Michael Maser. “But successive governments and Hydro have ensured very little happened to assist tidal energy development while favouring pet energy developments like offshore oil, coal-bed methane, the illusion of clean coal, natural gas, Peace River’s Site C dam, Duke Point and all the rest.”

As for B.C.’s ICE fund and its potential $25-million funding, Maser is dismissive: “I imagine that no company presently stoking tidal, wave or offshore wind really trusts that this government is serious about helping seed new technology here. Without trust you look elsewhere, which is what Blue Energy is doing.”

So Caraquet, New Brunswick, instead, will benefit from the private investment Blue Energy has finally secured, where, according to Blue Energy investment director Peter Senchuk, the town’s mayor Antoine Landry has lined up marine engineers keen to test some of the strongest tides in the world. “The New Brunswick government thinks there is a huge untapped industry that can be developed,” says Senchuk.

Aside from moving his company to the Maritimes, Burger says he is just back from a trip to India and has other trips planned to places like Korea and Indonesia where interest is similarly high. “I went to the United Kingdom recently, where Douglas Westwood Consulting estimated the tidal industry could generate $1 trillion in new development and power the entire U.K. grid. Why is it that here in B.C., which has the greatest potential for tidal energy on the planet, the government has slammed the door on any development at all? You figure it out. The last I heard, the moon is still going to be there for some time. That’s what I call renewable.”

© Vancouver Courier 2008