Tidal Energy Still Coming

by Alex Marshall

If you stand outside Gristedes and look across the East River toward Queens, you may be looking at the future of sustainable energy in the United States. No, not the big steel shed with the outsize flashing chimneys, but the two tiny buoy-like things bobbing in the water near the Roosevelt Island Bridge.

They mark the site of tide-driven turbines that gave Gristedes and Motorgate electricity in the 2006-2008 period. They don’t look like much, but the turbines were the first of their kind ever to operate successfully. On that basis, Verdant Power won the first-ever commercial license issued by the US for tidal-energy power generation, in 2012.

The first array built under the license is due to come on stream, if that’s the expression, this year or next. Trey Taylor, co-founder and marketing director of Verdant Power, told The WIRE that the first two new-generation turbines will be installed on the existing piles on the bed of the East River, and will shortly be followed by 30 more, using anchored frames to gang turbines in groups of three. Together, they will produce a megawatt of power, enough for a thousand homes. They’re designed tougher and smarter than the early versions, with fewer moving parts, so that they turn more evenly, swing more easily with the ebb and flow of the tide, and require less underwater servicing.

Will that mean cheap tidal electricity for Roosevelt Island? Not quite yet, says Taylor. The per-watt cost would still be prohibitive. The point, he says, is to prove that the technology can work reliably on a large scale over a long period, and attract investors. This time around, Verdant’s aim is to test its new turbines and perhaps generate enough dollars to consider a serious commercial project. Then the waters may part.

Taylor talks a little like a prophet. He foresees a time when RITE, Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy, could not only power the Island, including the Cornell campus, but provide drinking water by a process known as reverse osmosis. He has a vision of a bank of charging stations for residents’ electric cars, and even a manufacturing facility in the South Bronx.

If it sounds a little too good to be true, maybe it is. The first phase drew attention and commitment from a big hedge fund, but the Great Recession took care of that. Since then, private investment has been hard to come by, and the United States, unlike some other countries, hasn’t been willing to put a lot of public money into tidal energy. The price of fossil fuels is way down, making renewables still more expensive by comparison.

So Verdant is fishing in other, less oil-rich waters. With a small U.S. government grant, it’s promoting a scheme on the upper Euphrates River, below the Karakaya Dam in Turkey. There’s a 15-megawatt project in Canada, and another that might end up powering the Shannon Foynes Port Company bulk-handing facility using the tides of Ireland’s biggest estuary to drive the turbine array. There are discussions with the United Nations Foundation about projects in Zambia and other countries in need of reliable power without massive investment.

Will it work? Cheap, endless power from tides and currents sounds like a great idea – but then, it has sounded like a great idea for a long time, and no one has made it a viable proposition. On the other hand, Britain starts work this year on a $130-million seabed array in the wild waters around the north of Scotland, and may invest in tidal-power projects on a gigawatt scale.

Verdant’s concept, says Taylor, was to start small, and build up and out. And so far, RITE has worked, producing electricity without disturbing the river’s ecology. Another advantage is that Verdant’s turbines tend to turn close to where the power is needed. There are more people within 10 miles of the Queensboro Bridge, for example, than live in the whole of Scotland – and most Scots live in cities far from the stormy Pentland Firth. It’s also rather easier, probably, to service small turbines in a tidal river than big ones in remote waters far from shore.

For now, Verdant has a memorandum of understanding with Cornell University to explore applications on its new hi-tech campus now rising south of the Queensboro Bridge. Cornell is committed to a zero-net-energy approach, meaning that the campus will produce enough power to offset the energy it uses. East River turbine power could be part of that, and part of a variety of other applications, too. It could end with Roosevelt Island off the grid altogether, able to withstand anything climate change (given the last couple of winters, maybe a new Ice Age?) could throw at New York City.

There’s no doubt that Trey Taylor is deadly serious and committed to the Verdant vision. Maybe, if the price of oil goes up again…

Tags: Cornell Alex Marshall Environment

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