Eastport, ME is the deepest port in the continental United States. It is the closest American port to Europe, and if climate change continues, maybe to Asia. It is where we can learn how to use the ocean as a renewable and reliable energy source for Americans and the world. But it is also one of the poorest parts of the Eastern United States, without highways, rails or an economic strategy to connect it to the rest of the Northeast.
Every few years, someone writes an article about Eastport, ME – usually incredulous that the United States has such an underdeveloped physical asset so close to the bustling East Coast. In addition to the port and the possibility of renewal energy, it is, after all, also part of Vacationland – just a few hours north of Acadia National Park and million-dollar coastal vacation homes. Unfortunately, the timing, financing and strategic planning have never come together to develop the region to its potential.
The American Jobs Plan might fix that all at once. The core tenet of the legislation is that America’s infrastructure needs to be upgraded with modern technology to keep America competitive and address climate change. Fortunately, negotiations to garner bipartisan support for the legislation have hewed close to these concepts. And that’s where Eastport comes in. After the legislation passes, the Biden Administration should use Eastport as its pilot site – a place to showcase to the world that America can build/rebuild its infrastructure while also fighting climate change. Eastport needs traditional infrastructure such as highway and rail links to the rest of the Northeast alongside the development of its port. But it also sits on the Bay of Fundy, which has the greatest potential for generating tidal energy of any water body in the world. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), which is part of the US Department of Energy, estimates that if “fully utilized, ocean energy resources in the U.S. could provide the equivalent of over half of the electricity that the country generated in 2019”. In the broader American political context, Eastport could become a model for a more inclusive economy that doesn’t leave rural America behind.
According to the Island Institute, Eastport, ME has the 2nd deepest seaport in the United States. At 55 feet, it’s deeper than Norfolk, New York and even Halifax, the largest commercial port on the East Coast. It is also the closest American port to Europe. And unfortunately, if climate change continues to melt the Arctic, there may be a new marine trading route from Maine, via Canada, to Asia that will be much faster for ships than passing through the Panama Canal. In this scenario, Eastport becomes, by far, the closest American port to China, Korea and Japan.
But the port has hardly been developed. It would cost billions to dredge the harbor, fortify and expand the current port. A modern port is also useless without highway and rail connections to the rest of the Northeastern United States. Until now, the billions required to build out the region weren’t there.
The other big opportunity lies in harnessing tidal energy. The city sits on the Bay of Fundy, which has the potential to generate up to 300MW of energy annually – enough tidal energy to provide electricity for nearly all of Maine. There are two important types of ocean-generated energy available in the Bay of Fundy. There is wave energy, which generate power from surface waves. And there is tidal energy, which generate power from the movements of tidal currents, usually under the surface. According to NREL, “tidal energy converters use the horizontal movement of tidal currents to generate power, typically through submerged turbines whose propellers are spun by the current, analogous to wind turbines”. There are also emerging technologies, like tidal kites, which can harness both tidal currents and offshore currents with a kite tethered underwater.
But harnessing the ocean for renewable energy requires lots of R&D, innovation and business model experimentation to work. Right now, its neither financially nor operationally feasible. But the combination of the American Jobs Plan and the US Innovation and Competitiveness Act (USICA) provides a significant boost to clean energy research. The two plans also provide government grants, loans and tax credits to help companies figure out business models to make ocean-generated energy competitive to fossil fuels, solar and wind. Until now, researchers and startups have thought about harnessing ocean energy using existing models of energy storage and generation, such as turbines, which have proven somewhat ineffective and too expensive. With support from this new legislation, the industry has a chance to experiment with new models, such as tidal kites, and figure out what technology is most efficient and can scale internationally.
Overall, renewable ocean energy has the potential to reduce global carbon emissions from fossil fuels by 500 million tons by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency. In Maine, it will also help meet the energy needs of rural communities which may not have access to reliable electricity sources.
If developing a major shipping port and building a renewable energy industry were not enough reasons for you to be interested in Eastport, then consider the politics. President Biden has stressed the importance of building an inclusive economy and bringing Americans closer together. Eastport, and Northern Maine, need this. The region is one of the poorest in America, with only a few thousand people and a median income of less than $27,000 annually, according to the last Census. It voted for Democrat Jared Golden for Congress and Republican Donald Trump for President. Even though it sits just a few hours from the wealthy, powerful cities of the East Coast, it has almost no connection to them.
The American Jobs Act is not just an opportunity to rebuild bridges and put solar panels on suburban roofs. Instead, it can connect far-flung parts of our country to its vibrant economic centers using modern technology, sustainable principles and a unique financing opportunity. Eastport is the easternmost point in the United States. Let’s start there and keep moving.