Ocean Renewable Power Co. is hoping an agreement between the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the state of Maine could help the company in its quest to install an eventual 5 megawatts of tide-powered turbines in the state's coastal waters.

FERC and Maine announced Wednesday that they will work together to speed applications to install "hydrokinetic" power projects, the first such agreement on the East Coast. FERC has similar agreements with Oregon and Washington.

Maine shares a coastline with Canada on the Bay of Fundy, recognized as one of the most promising sites for tidal power in the world. That's where Ocean Renewable Power is aiming its efforts, said John Ferland, vice president of project development.

The company tested a 30-kilowatt version of its "cross-flow turbine" system in the bay's waters in 2004, and plans to have a 60-kilowatt system in the water in mid-October, he said.

The turbines are moored at least 40 feet below the ocean surface and use helical foils rather than large propeller-style turbines to spread the potentially destructive force of tidal flows over a greater surface area, he said. (For a video demonstration, click here.)

Beyond that test (and others underway in Alaska), the company is seeking a "pilot project license" with FERC to start testing larger deployments. Four 250-kilowatt units stacked together to generate 1 megawatt of power could be in the water by late 2010, if FERC approves the license early next year, as hoped, he said.

The license seeks authority to install an eventual 5 megawatts of turbines, which would require the approval of state regulators as well as the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries Service, he said.

FERC's approval comes in as Ocean Renewable will seek to connect those turbines to the grid of utility Bangor Hydro, Ferland said. The agreement "extends the signal to FERC that the state of Maine has a priority on tidal energy development as an economic opportunity in this state," he said.

Other companies hold preliminary permits for ocean power projects in Maine, but no others have tested systems in the water, he said.

Ocean Renewable is also looking into installing its turbines in Maine's Sheepscot River in a project with the town of Wiscasset and the Chewonki Foundation, he said.

Ocean tides – as well as waves – could be a huge renewable power resource, though they currently deliver only tens of megawatts of power.

The Electric Power Research Institute has estimated wave and tidal power could provide up to 10 gigawatts of power in the United States by 2025. Greentech Media and the Prometheus Institute predicted in October that ocean power could grow to a $500 million, 1 gigawatt industry by 2014 (see Trawling for $500M in Ocean Power and Tide Turning for Ocean Power?).

That potential has drawn the interest of startups and industrial giants alike (see Alstom Gets Into Tidal Power With Clean Current Power). Airtricity, the renewable energy division of utility Scottish and Southern Energy, has said it will work with Scottish startup Aquamarine Power to develop 1 gigawatt of ocean power in the coming years (see Aquamarine Scraps Tidal Power, Focuses on Waves).

But the ocean is a harsh environment, and some would-be ocean power projects have suffered technical failures over the past year (see California Sinks Its First Wave Energy Project).

The economic downturn has added financial difficulties to other ocean power projects (see Pelamis Wave Machines Cranking Hundreds of Kilowatts, Pre-Crisis).

Other tidal power companies include Marine Current Turbines, whose $20 million tidal power project off the coast of Northern Ireland called SeaGen is now generating 1.2 megawatts, and Verdant Power, which has a $2.2 million deal with the government of Ontario for a 15-megawatt project in the St. Lawrence River and a turbine in New York's East River (see Time magazine article).