Dam About to Bust on Clean Hydrokinetic Energy

Verdant Power wins permit for RITE tidal power projectA 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.

Tina writes frequently for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

6 responses

  1. “Hydrokinetic turbines can be installed in waterways without interrupting their natural flow”

    Technically, that’s not true if you put a lot of them in there.  

    Also gives me a great idea:  The Detroit River has been dredged to be deeper than it was naturally and has since eroded – one reason the upper great lakes have dropped a foot or two in average level – that’s a lot of fresh water down the drain and a navigational hazard.  

    They have talked about dropping giant concrete “jacks” into the river to slow it down. Why not a few hundred of these babies instead?  

  2. Fishermen and environmentalist would eat you for lunch for making sushi. fisherman would lose their lines.  Of course since the Hudson is too contaminated to fish and eat, maybe there you get rid of that group.

  3. Dear

    days ago I visited more home pages referring
    TIDAL projects. As I was previously following similar VERDANT program from USA,
    after studying all VOITH – Siemens and ALSTOM designs, I found out that all that
    projects are carrying similar disadvantages which are coursing 12 to 20 times
    larger investing and operational costs for each received MWh which instead of
    35 to 40 € per MWh has price which overcomes 500 € per MWh and by my
    calculations could be never smaller than 300 € for MWh.

    Since more years I am http://www.izumi.si involved also to problem of
    exploring energy from slowly moving water streams. Up to last year I used to work on only smaller
    units (SP 1) with Power up to 80 kW. Today I am involved in new designs (SP 2)
    which are 10 times stronger.

    SP 2 units are incomparably cheaper,
    technically extremely simple and their life time can realistically be longer
    than 50 years. They are maximally 3
    m high but their horizontal diameter is very large
    because SP2 are not axially operating (like other TIDAL turbines) but on radial
    way. Therefore, I made plans and calculations for two types of SP 2 units – 22
    and 32 meters
    of diameter – very convenient to be used as TIDAL units:

    SP 22 m with 300 kW of Power,
    complete price of 1,5 Million € and price for each MWh of 45 €

    SP 32 m with 500 kW of Power,
    complete price of 1,9 Million € and price for each MWh of 40 €

    In deeper water with high of nearly 6 m, capacity of each can be
    multiplied but not with doubled producing price what means that price for
    electricity can be lowered to 30 to 35 € for each MWh.

    Please, answer me what are the reasons
    that all those companies are insisting in production of 20 times more expensive
    and technically wrong solutions regarding which we shall never get electric
    power based on expectable price ? I
    tried to ask them but nobody was not prepared to give me any kind of answer.

    Best regards,

    Markovic Ljubljana, 2013-03-31

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