Why a retired bureaucrat decided to lead a risky tidal energy research project focused on the Bay of Fundy’s turbulent waters
I had retired as Nova Scotia’s Deputy Minister of Justice in March of 2007. Then I got a call in June or July of 2007 asking if I would come back for a few months on a contract to help the Department of Energy get its fledgling marine renewable energy team organized. I knew nothing about marine renewable energy, but I knew something about leading. What I thought would be a three-month stint turned into what eventually became the Fundy Ocean Research Centre for Energy or FORCE.
Nobody had ever laid subsea cables—designed to transfer power generated by turbines in the water to the shore and on to the Nova Scotia electricity grid—at a site like this with that amount of ocean velocity. It required a lot of thought and a lot of trials that didn’t work out. We knew it had to be done with tugs and barges, but I don’t know how many experts told me it couldn’t be done that way. I hired Tony Wright, an engineer, and he put together a team that did it with tugs and barges. Then he took over for me as general manager of FORCE on January 1, 2014. The timing was good because by then the project became less about finding the money to do it and keeping people engaged. It required somebody who could go out on a barge or stand on a tug and give people directions. That never was my forte.
We never said tidal energy was going to be a winner. We always said it was worth finding out about because we have the Mt. Everest of tidal power. You’d be foolish not to take an interest in it. FORCE’s job is not to promote it but to promote finding out about it.
I think it was worth doing and is still worth doing. That doesn’t guarantee tidal energy will be commercial. But we now know a number of tidal turbines can go in the water at the site without major adverse impacts on the environment. We don’t know if 300 can go in, but when you have that resource sitting there in a world that is burning fossil fuels, it is only sensible to find out whether we can tap it for electricity. I still think it could turn out. If it does, Nova Scotia is very well positioned to produce electricity as well as export tidal energy expertise and know-how.
Ultimately information is the great value in the world. FORCE has enabled Nova Scotians to acquire a great deal of information about tidal energy. Whether it has commercial value depends on a whole lot of factors. It’s going slower than people expected but we never expected a quick pay off. Very little research pays off quickly if you’re on the cutting edge. We were way beyond that.