The Next Generation Of Turbines Go Underwater, And They're Coming Soon

As the U.S. slowly abandons its dams, more and more pilot programs pop up for deriving power from tides and river currents. Welcome to a new age of water power.

Every day, enough water flows down America's rivers and streams to power tens of millions of homes. With the era of big dams effectively over in the U.S., halted by the lack of suitable sites as much as environmental concerns, the time for hydrokinetic energy may just be dawning.  

The ideas of using turbines, or other mechanical devices, to capture the energy of moving water is not a new one. Yet the technology for such hydrokinetic energy has met serious resistance from conditions below the surface. As water is 832 times denser than air, it poses tough engineering challenges for power generators who must contend with corrosion, stray electromagnetic fields, and rules to safeguard sealife.    

"There's a lot of electricity to be had from these device and probably fewer environmental impacts, says Glenn Cada, senior researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in the Department of Energy's program to improve hydrokenetic technology and minimize the environmental impacts. "It's not as easy as taking a taking a wind turbine and putting it under water. The forces are much greater. We are trying to understand how to make them sturdy enough to generate electricity from river currents."

Demonstration projects in the Mississippi and New York's East Rivers have been steadily perfecting the technology needed to capture this energy for almost a decade. Verdant Power's Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy project in New York’s East River (soon to be expanded) has successfully operated six underwater turbines between 2006-2008, and delivering 70 megawatt hours to a nearby supermarket and parking garage in what the company called the "world’s first grid-connected array of tidal turbines." Free Flow Power Power has installed its own turbines, resembling jet engines, in the Mississippi and is eying more than 50 expansion sites.   

Now, everyone from state agencies to universities are racing to get into the game. Applications to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for new hydrokinetic sites have soared in the last three years: 79   have been approved since 2009 (almost double those as of 2008), and 145 more are awaiting final approval in  Missouri, Maine, Louisiana, New Jersey and other states. 

Eventually, based on the ambitions of several energy developers, underwater fields of hundreds of turbines could generating enough megawatts to power cities around the country.      

"We're trying to prove these things right now," says Cada.

[Image: Atlantis Resources Corporation]

Reach Michael J. Coren via Twitter or email.

Read More: World's First Floating Wind Turbine Installed, Ready for Testing

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  • PJakob

    In support of my earlier comment re not making the same mistake we did with dams, destroying habitat, species and ecosystems, and livelihoods:
    Salmon: Running the Gauntlet | Nature | PBS Video

  • PJakob

    Let's not make the same mistake we did with dams.  Before I get excited about hydrokietics I would want to know how this affects fish habitats and the health of the environment whether it be rivers of seas.  I can see the repeat of a rush for profits and a forgetfulness that we humans depend on a natural healthy world for our own wellbeing.   With habitats struggling for survival within Nature, I would think it would be a corporate responsibility to ensure more damage is not being laid at the feet of Nature just because a new technology has come onto the horizon.   Humans are very intelligent.  I always encourage our scientific and technology minds to use a base criteria for all they develop and that is:  Does it harm the environment or human health?  We can come up with inventions that are compatible for all IF we adhere to a base line that includes all life.We need to work with Nature, not against her and stop trying to manipulate, manage and control her to the detriment of all. 

  • Todd Griset

    Very timely article -- the US Senate is currently considering a bill to facilitate hydrokinetic projects.  Senator
    Murkowski of Alaska has sponsored S.630, also known as the Marine and
    Hydrokinetic Renewable Energy Promotion Act of 2011.

    The current version of the bill notes both "marine and hydrokinetic renewable energy technologies can reduce contributions to global warming", and that the nation has the potential to grow its own share of the hydrokinetic energy supply chain -- producing turbines, transmission components, and other project pieces on shore.

    The bill also notes that " the United States must work to promote new renewable energy
    technologies that reduce contributions to global warming gases and
    improve domestic energy production."

    In light of these upsides, the proposed legislation goes on to provide support for
    hydrokinetic projects including grants for R&D, commercialization and actual projects.

    If you're interested in more of the details, you can read more about S.630 and hydrokinetic energy on my blog.