For Douglas Meffert, those attempting to harness the water power of the Mississippi River aren't just scientists and engineers; they're visionaries who could transform the way power grids operate in the Southeast, and perhaps other areas of the United States.
Meffert, a professor of bioenvironmental research at Tulane University, said that with his work, he's carrying on the mission of the late professor William Mouton, a revered New Orleans structural engineer, to end the southeastern United States' reliance on fossil-fuel energy from the Gulf of Mexico. The trick will be to perfect hydrokinetic energy -- a renewable energy source generated by underwater turbines set in motion by the flow of rivers, ocean currents, waves or tides.
"Think about the Mississippi River Basin as a large energy grid," said Meffert. "Now we're depending on [power] plants to bring energy into [the] region, but instead we could think of the water systems in our region as the grid itself."
Meffert's long-term vision is to turn the region from a consumer of fossil fuels into a producer of renewable energy and, one day, an exporter of that energy. He has started on this path as the director of RiverSphere, a Tulane University research center that will study the environmental and technical features of river turbines.
But there are a number of challenges that Meffert's work, and every other hydrokinetic project in the country, must overcome before this becomes a viable source of energy. Funding is scarce, turbines keep breaking and projects may be putting ecosystems at risk. Meanwhile, competition from other countries and the need for more clean, domestically produced energy keep rising.
There are also the long-term concerns about how this type of hydro energy would cope with droughts, flooding or more extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change.
These issues are what Meffert and his team, but also researchers at a number of private companies, are hoping to solve. If they are successful, U.S.-made hydrokinetic projects could be providing a stable source of energy from rivers, channels and oceans around the country and the world.
The nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute, whose members represent 90 percent of the nation's utilities, has estimated that in the United States alone, new hydrokinetic technologies could provide an increase in generation capacity of 3,000 megawatts by 2025. Another study found hydrokinetic energy could supply 10 percent of America's electricity needs.
"Some industry estimates say the potential for lower-flow hydro energy could equal or exceed the existing energy production from hydropower from dams, while at the same time having a much less significant impact on the environment because you're not destroying and flooding entire ecosystems," said Meffert. "You're adding projects to river and tidal systems that already exist."
Water, water, everywhere but not nearly enough funding
The RiverSphere project, which is currently over 8.5 acres of empty riverside property, is a year behind schedule, said Meffert. While the project received a $3 million grant from the Economic Development Administration to construct the center, funding provided by the city of New Orleans under Mayor Ray Nagin was withdrawn last year. Meffert is now looking to fill that void with another source of non-federal funding before the foundations can be laid.
In May, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources passed legislation in support of the nascent hydro energy industry, allocating up to $75 million in funding for all tidal, wave, ocean thermal and river-based projects (ClimateWire, May 27). But although legislation is moving forward, many companies and research facilities are currently required to match federal investments with private funding.
"It's a challenge to raise that non-federal match because the economic return on that investment isn't in the three- to five-year range; it's in the five- to 20-year range," said Meffert. In the meantime, up to 50 research jobs and potentially hundreds of manufacturing jobs are on hold while the RiverSphere project waits for additional backing.
Managers at Free Flow Power (FFP), a renewable energy company focused on hydropower, are all too familiar with this problem.
The company commissioned its first full-scale hydrokinetic device in the Mississippi River on June 20 and has been successfully operating the turbine off a pontoon at a Dow Chemical plant in Plaquemine, La. But the pilot project isn't actually powering anything; rather, it's allowing researchers to monitor how the turbine is responding to the river environment.
Jon Guidroz, FFP's director of project development, said that since the experiment is performing above expectations, it should validate the company's application for additional funding. The project is already funded in part by the Department of Energy's Advanced Water Power Technologies program. Another DOE-funded venture, and FFP's ultimate goal, is to install turbines on the river floor.
After four years of preparation, Guidroz says FFP should be ready to achieve full-scale installation by the end of 2013, but that the deadline is contingent on its ability to jump through all the regulatory hoops.
Waiting to take the plunge
FFP has already applied for dozens of licenses, and must now renew 60 of them that have met the three-year expiration date. The company has an additional 45 preliminary permits pending before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). But, like all other American hydrokinetic companies, none of its commercial license applications has been fully approved.
Before issuing a license, FERC has required that FFP complete 11 studies. Some of them will look at the impacts turbines have on aquatic life, navigation, acoustic sounds, archaeology and aquatic vegetation.
The legacy of traditional hydropower projects, specifically large-scale dams, has made the regulatory system for all hydropower projects immensely thorough. To launch a hydrokinetic project, companies have to get approval from FERC, U.S. EPA, DOE, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Bureaucratic speed bumps have spurred FERC to start streamlining the process for hydrokinetic projects, said Meffert. But he was quick to note that "wind energy and solar never had to go through this."
As a director at a company operating on the Mississippi River, which many feel is a largely untapped renewable resource, Guidroz shares Meffert's frustration over the delays. But he's also confident that there will soon be progress.
"You have a large population density and large consumers of electricity going right down the middle of U.S., where you don't have much wind energy or solar concentration but you have a great hydrokinetic resource," said Guidrioz. "I think we're looking at an inevitable opportunity to commercialize."
Beyond the Mississippi Basin, other companies are making headway in the regulatory process and could see turbines come online as early as next year.
Verdant Power's Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy (RITE) Project is among the leaders in the implementation of hydrokinetic systems. According to its website, the RITE Project stands as the "the world's first grid-connected array of tidal turbines." Unlike river turbines, this project harnesses the ebbs and flows of New York's East River, which is actually a tidal strait.
While designing underwater turbines is complicated in any conditions, the ocean adds the elements of strong currents and corrosion from the saltwater. Plus, there are concerns over the safety of endangered marine life, such as the killer whale population that hydrokinetic companies have had to worry about off the coast of Washington state.
Heading (slowly) toward commercialization
Verdant Power's six prototypes tested in the East River encountered some of these problems when strong currents broke off parts of turbine blades. But power was successfully delivered to businesses on Roosevelt Island, launching what the company calls the first grid-connected system of tidal turbines in the world. Indeed, the achievement is significant, because the company sees itself competing on a global scale.
"Right now, it's a race between the U.S. and the U.K., and in that race, we feel confident that Verdant Power has the lead," said co-founder and President Trey Taylor.
Verdant is also trying to move into the Chinese market with the sale of its Gen5 turbine. As a member of the Department of Commerce's Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Advisory Committee, Taylor says it's the current administration's goal to double its renewables exports in the next five years. China has taken the lead in wind and solar energy, said Taylor, but hydrokinetic power is an emerging industry that could still be led by the United States.
"We've been building relationships and have signed a memorandum of understanding with China's largest renewable company," said Taylor. "In future, we could be exporting our rotor blades and other component parts, and that would be a job creator in the U.S. based on a commercially viable operation going on in New York."
Verdant is still waiting for final approval on a commercial license to start installing its 30-turbine system that could see three turbines in the East River by next year. Others will have to wait longer, although they see that the need for stable sources of future energy is increasing.
"It's not just an issue of renewable energy; it's an issue of energy security," said Meffert regarding the uncertainty of the Southern climate. "We could have a hurricane wipe out our traditional energy grid, yet that river is still flowing. So if we're tapping into that, we'd be a much more resilient and robust region in terms of our energy facilities."
"But that's in the 20-year range, and I'm sick of waiting," he said. "I just hope I'm alive to see it."