HARNESSING FUNDY TIDES AN OLD IDEA (November 8/96)

“Production of electrical energy using the great tidal amplitude of the Bay of Fundy has been considered several times in the past,” write the authors of A Natural History of Kings County.

The “tidal amplitude” the authors mention amounts to a violent twice-daily movement of 10,000 million tonnes of water between Blomidon and the Parrsboro shore. When you view the savage currents that churn past Cape Split on tide changes, one word comes to mind – “awesome.” Watching those spectacular rips, its tidal force to electric energy.

The harnessing of tidal power has received much attention in recent decades and the idea isn’t new to Nova Scotians. I’m not sure if the Fundy tidal project has been shelved or is on hold, but little is heard about it today. The experimental tidal power plant on the Annapolis River, which I thought was the first step toward a larger project on the Fundy, has been operating for over a decade.

As I suggested in the heading, the harnessing of Fundy tides is not a new idea. The first major attempt to harness the Fundy was made in 1916. In that year, the Cape Split Development Company Limited (CSDCL) announced that it had solved the problem of harnessing the Bay of Fundy tides and would supply cheap, unlimited power immediately to the local area and possibly down the road to the entire Maritimes.

This project may have been the brainchild of the then president of Acadia University, George Barton Cutten, and the University Professor of Engineering, R. P. Clarkson. Cutten and Clarkson are listed as president and vice-president of the CSDCL in a prospectus published in 1916. The prospectus announced that “President Cutten and Professor Clarkson of Acadia University have solved the problem of harnessing the Bay of Fundy tides and believe they are able to indicate the means by which cheap power may be furnished.” The means was the Clarkson Current Motor, which Professor Clarkson had invented and patented.

It appears that the CSDCL project was on a more modest scale than the recent plan to place giant dams at the head of the Bay of Fundy. In a nutshell, the plan was to pump seawater from the base of Cape Split to the cliffs above and let gravity create electricity. Here is how the scheme is described in the prospectus:

“These (Clarkson) current motors … will operate pumps located in pump chamber in the channel walls and elevating water to small regulating reservoirs placed on the adjacent high cliffs more than 300 feet above mean tide level. From the reservoirs the water will run by gravity through concrete chutes to the turbines in the power house at the bottom of the cliffs.”

In 1916, the CSDCL announced that a charter had been granted, land had been acquired and some preliminary work had been done on the tidal project. The cost of the project had attracted a number of prominent investors, the list of shareholders in the prospectus reading like a who’s who of the period.

Despite an impressive start, this early dream of harnessing the Fundy was never realised. Like the recent Fundy tidal project, it may have been ahead of its time.

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