A company called Verdant Power has won the first ever commercial license for a hydrokinetic tidal power facility in the U.S., and that could be just the first drop in a torrent of more than 100 new hydrokinetic projects that are still in the initial stages of permitting around the country. Verdant’s project, called RITE for Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy, will tap the powerful currents of New York City’s East River to generate clean electricity.
Hydrokinetic energy shows great promise for growth in the U.S., since the turbines can potentially be installed in industrial waterways such as wastewater treatment plants and food processing plants as well as natural waterways, but until recently the technology has been treading water, so to speak, in the research and development phase. The success of the RITE project could mean that hydrokinetic turbines are ready to cross over into mainstream commercial use.
What’s So Great About Hydrokinetic Turbines?
Hydrokinetic turbines can be installed in waterways without interrupting their natural flow, unlike conventional hydropower facilities that require dams to generate water pressure artificially. That means you get all the benefits of clean hydropower without the enormous carbon footprint that comes along with major infrastructure projects. You can also get scalability, since hydrokinetic turbines are generally designed as “drop-in” pieces of equipment that can be tethered to barges or anchored in place individually. The company HydroVolts is one example of a focus on small-scale hydrokinetic projects that can take advantage of minor waterway assets in local communities.
Hydrokinetic turbines can also be added on to existing hydropower dams, to squeeze some extra volts out of those facilities.
Hurry Up and Wait for Clean Hydrokinetic Power
Despite their obvious advantages, hydrokinetic turbines face two main challenges. First, their potential impact on marine life in natural waterways needs to be assessed. Second, because the technology relies on ambient current rather than revved-up water pressure, the mechanics of the turbine have to be refined in order to make them worth the investment. When hydrokinetic turbines are installed in a natural waterway they also face a third challenge, which is their ability to function efficiently under varying conditions of flood, drought, ebb tide or flow tide. Given all this it should come as no surprise that the RITE project has been in development since 2006, when placement of the first six of thirty planned turbines began.
Federal Support for New Hydrokinetic Projects
Recognizing the barriers confronting hydrokinetic projects, in 2008 the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) established new licensing procedures designed to make it easier for the hydro power industry to test pilot hydrokinetic projects in real world conditions. The agency defines pilot projects as small-scale, removable facilities that use natural currents, tides or waves to generate electricity. That is the license that Verdant Power received for RITE (by the way, it should be noted that the East River is part of a tidal system and is not a river in the conventional sense).
The Obama Administration and Hydrokinetic Power
To speed up the development of new technologies, last year the U.S. Economic Development Administration awarded a $3 million grant to Tulane University for its new RiverSphere center, which will provide a facility on the Mississippi River for private sector companies to test their prototype hydrokinetic turbines.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has also taken up the hydrokinetic mantle with the development of JEDI (take that, Dark Side!), a free analytical tool that makes it easier for hydrokinetic energy developers, and other stakeholders, to anticipate local economic impacts associated with their projects.
The Global Race for Hydrokinetic Leadership
Verdant claims that its initial six turbines were the first grid-connected hydrokinetic turbines in the world, but the U.S. better get a move on if it wants to establish global leadership in the industry. Ironically, some of the competition may come from Canada, home base of the notorious Keystone XL oil pipeline. Verdant Power is moving forward with a 15 MW hydrokinetic project on the St. Lawrence River in Ontario, based on lessons learned from the RITE pilot project turbines.
Image: Hydrokinetic turbine courtesy of Verdant Power.
Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.