With the installation of a single turbine at a dock on the lower Mississippi River, a renewable energy company is taking a big step toward what could be an unending power source.
The company, Boston-based Free Flow Power, is testing a “hydrokinetic” underwater turbine at the Dow Chemical dock in Plaquemine, La. If successful, the project could usher in a new wave of portside electricity production, using the continuous flow of river current to generate clean energy.
In concept, that could open the door to a new source of power for inland or coastal ports on fast-flowing rivers, where turbines could operate most efficiently. In theory, riverfront property owners could lease easements, take power to reduce their purchases from utilities or become partners in supplying power to their tenants.
Though the work is years from major development, industry officials and the government are taking the company’s concept seriously.
With a $1.4 million grant from the Department of Energy, Free Flow Power has launched its pilot and is investing in costly studies as it pursues a first-of-its-kind operating license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
“They are serious,” one river industry veteran said. “They are dedicating a lot of time and money to the study process,” and discussing the issues at length with stakeholders up and down the river, the source said.
At the Port of New Orleans, Communications Manager Chris Bonura said that, although generating power from the Mississippi River is a generally positive idea, “we have to be sure it is done in a way that does not impede navigation.”
The port might consider tapping such electrical power for its own needs if it were cost effective, he said, and the testing will help show “if there is a way to harness that (river) energy that makes sense.”
Free Flow isn’t alone in pushing the idea for alternative electrical power generation. Verdant Power is operating underwater turbines of a different design off Roosevelt Island in New York’s East River. Tulane University also is working on a hydrokinetic research project.
Free Flow is also one of two companies applying for projects to install more traditional hydropower units at navigation dams along the upper Mississippi River. Many of the nation’s dams were built to manage river depth at intervals for barges and operate adjacent locks for barges and other craft, but they were deemed too small to be worth a major hydropower installation. New technology involving smaller turbines now makes it much more feasible to retrofit those dams.
For its underwater river turbines, Free Flow is thinking big but moving carefully. The single turbine at Plaquemine came after three years of research and development. It was three weeks after the turbine’s installation before the company formally announced the project; Free Flow wanted to make sure the turbine worked as planned.
Planners envision large underwater fields of turbines, attached to a series of concrete pilings, each field stretching perhaps along a mile of river at a time. While the Plaquemine turbine is rated to produce
40 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power 13 U.S. homes, the large-scale fields could hold 400 to 600 separate turbines.
The result would be equivalent to building new power plants, without traditional fuels. And, unlike the main alternative energy producers, wind or solar arrays that crank up and down with their power source, river turbines could generate electricity all the time.
Jon Guidroz, Free Flow Power’s director of project development, said the pilot project turbine looks like a jet aircraft engine and has internal blade features such as wind turbines. But moving water generates 26 times the power of air, he said.
The test project will look at the turbine’s effect on fish and how it handles river debris, but developers think they have a design that can meet all environmental requirements and keep operating through varied river conditions.
Well before it got to this point, however, “we’ve begun extensive outreach along the Mississippi River,” he said, “including the ports and shippers.” Guidroz said a key to the vision is making sure it does not interfere with navigation.
Mark Wright, southern region vice president at the American Waterways Operators, said the AWO and its members are studying the Free Flow plans and giving input to its FERC license studies. The AWO, which represents barge lines, has no final position on the project, he said.
But based on what he has seen to date, Wright said, “It does seem that the normal operation of these turbines would not be a problem for navigation.”
Questions remain about whether river use could be restricted when a turbine array is deployed or serviced. “The primary concern right now is installation and maintenance,” Wright said.
Studies could determine how the pilings and turbines interact with the river’s heavy load of silt, and how the turbine fields and their onshore substations would operate in heavy floods.
Other riverfront operators are showing interest in tapping or hosting the turbine fields, as long as they don’t disrupt normal river business. At New Orleans, Bonura said, “I feel pretty confident that we’ll find a way to make it work.”
Free Flow Power is three years into its FERC licensing and study process, and Guidroz projects the earliest it could receive a license would be the end of 2013. “Two years (more) is an optimistic window” to get the agency’s first license for a hydrokinetic facility, he said. But it’s within reach. “That’s why we’re working with stakeholders.”