Hydrokinetics literally refers to the process of generating electricity by harnessing the motion of water. It’s nothing new; hydroelectric power plants use this very principle. However, it seems that we’ve picked most of the low-lying hydroelectric fruit, and now the focus shifts to capturing the power in oceans and rivers.
A whole slew of ocean/wave power technologies is being developed, and although they haven’t come to reality just yet, there is a lot of potential – mostly because the ocean is huge, and as long as a technology can be brought to scale, the general consensus is that there is plenty of energy to tap.
River hydrokinetics, on the other hand, seem to have hit some snags. The principle is essentially the same – build some kind of turbine that is pushed by the current of the river. The difference is that they usually produce less power. More importantly, building them is a regulatory nightmare, since companies trying to put them underwater are legally treated as if they were building a hydroelectric dam (which, as you can imagine, is not simple).
Take Hydro Green, a company that just installed the nation’s first hydrokinetic turbine in Minnesota, under the Mississippi River. It works, and it’s green… but it only generates 35 kilowatts. Maybe this was just a prototype; maybe newer models will generate more electricity. But if you are going to have to build more than 40 of these things just to get the same amount of energy coming out of, say, one of GE’s 1.5 MW wind turbines – you have to wonder about the pros and cons.
Verdant Power is another example – they’ve been working on putting turbines like this in the East River of New York City for years. According to a researcher at the Electric Power Research Institute, they have spent more money on permits than they spent on actually building their turbines!
I’m not saying that putting turbines in rivers doesn’t make sense BECAUSE there is red tape. But every idea needs to pass a cost-benefit analysis, and given the various costs of building turbines in slow moving rivers, I wonder whether the ultimate benefits would really outweigh the costs. There may be more to gain from the ocean.
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