Maine may streamline tidal power permitting

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Maine legislature is considering a proposal to streamline the permitting process for some tidal energy projects. The bill, "An Act To Streamline the General Permit Process for Tidal Power", would relieve a perceived conflict between state and federal law over the permitting process.

Tidal energy has been harvested along the Maine coast for hundreds of years. While tide mills' heyday predated modern regulation of energy projects and their environmental impacts, anyone developing a modern tidal power project must navigate multiple layers of rules and requirements. The recent resurgence of interest in tidal energy has led to an often overlapping patchwork of regulations.

These rules can be hard to interpret, and occasionally lead to chicken-or-the-egg conundrums. For example, a 2009 Maine law created an expedited general permit process for certain small tidal power projects. Under that process, projects capable of generating up to 5 megawatts of power can qualify for an easier permitting path if their primary purpose is demonstrating or testing tidal technology. (By way of comparison, 5 megawatts is roughly equivalent to 6,705 horsepower - imagine what a tide miller could have done with that!)

Prior to filing a permit application with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection under the 2009 law, an applicant must first obtain a finding from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that the project will have no significant adverse impact on environmental quality. Unfortunately, before issuing that finding federal regulators want applicants to show that they are already seeking state approval. This regulatory conflict makes it hard for people who want to develop or redevelop a tidal resource to move forward.

To fix this problem, the DEP, Senator Mike Thibodeau of Waldo County, and Representative Joyce Maker of Calais proposed an amendment to Maine law. Their bill, known as LD 437, would enable the DEP to start processing an application without needing to wait for the federal environmental assessment. After a public hearing earlier this month, the legislature's Joint Standing Committee on Environment and Natural Resources voted to recommend that the bill ought to pass as amended.

Next steps for the tidal streamlining bill include consideration by the full Senate and House. Given the committee's vote, the bill seems likely to find further support in the two chambers. While its enactment may not launch a tide of new tidal power developments in Maine, relieving this piece of the regulatory tangle should help people test and demonstrate tidal power technologies old and new.

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