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Hydrokinetic River Power: It’s been tried. Now What?

Government justifies the money it spends on research by saying it’s for theoretical research that industry can’t afford to do.

A good example of theoretical research is particle research that requires building huge accelerators, such as the Fermilab, to investigate the fundamentals of matter.

Actually, much of the money being spent by the Department of Energy (DOE) is on applied research.

With applied research, it’s very likely that industry has already investigated the possibility of pursuing a particular line of research, and found it to be uneconomic.

Be that as it may, the question arises what to do next after DOE has found its efforts to be uneconomic. Stop investing in the research, or throw good money after bad?

An excellent example of this is hydrokinetics for rivers, referred to as water power, analogous to wind power.

hydrokinetic-turbines-from-doe-brochureThe theory is simple: Fast running water in rivers can turn propeller-like turbines to generate electricity. The same principle applies to tidal waters and estuaries.

Examples of hydrokinetic Turbines, from DOE Brochure

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) studied hydrokinetic opportunities on rivers and found that, at best, hydrokinetics might be able to provide 3% of America’s electricity.

The EPRI report goes on to say that the actual amount that’s practical to produce is an unknown fraction of 3%.

In other words, a lot less than 3%.

Nearly half of this is in the lower Mississippi River, from St. Louis, south.

Here is what a 2010 report by the Alaska Center for Energy and Power said about impediments to hydrokinetics: “Hydrokinetic technology can be affected by debris, sediment, frazil and surface ice, river dynamics (turbulence, current velocity, channel stability), and the effect of turbine operations on fish and marine mammals and their habitat.”

In addition to these problems the installations produce small amounts of electricity. For example, the trial at Minnesota’s Hastings Dam, utilized two turbines rated 100 KW each. Each unit was roughly 12 feet in diameter.

The physical size of these units would surely interfere with river barge traffic unless they are installed adjacent to existing dams.

Units rated 100 or 200 KW produce very small amounts of electricity. In addition, each location requires expensive connections to the grid.

Typically, groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists support this type of uneconomic development, because it’s renewable and doesn’t emit CO2.

Cost figures are currently unavailable, but a quick look at the units’ size and complexity would indicate high cost.

These comments apply to rivers, and not necessarily to estuaries and tidal waters.

Siemens, for example, is testing a 1.5 MW unit, the same nameplate rating as most wind turbines, that’s 120 feet long in European waters. Voith, from Germany, is building a 1 MW unit in Cherbourg, France.

It’s unknown how these units will survive the rigors of salt water, such as from fouling, i.e., barnacles, or how costly they will ultimately be, but at least, they may produce credible amounts of electricity.

River hydrokinetic installations, however, provide minuscule amounts of electricity, and are very costly.

In addition, these comments do not apply to adding generating capabilities to existing dams where generating equipment is not currently installed. See More Hydro is Better than Wind that describes this opportunity.

Perhaps DOE could find better uses of tax payer money than supporting hydrokinetics for river applications.

Donn DearsDonn Dears

Using knowledge gained from a lifetime of activity working in the energy arena, Donn writes for Power For USA.

Donn began his career at General Electric testing large steam turbines and generators used by utilities to generate electricity; followed, by manufacturing and marketing assignments at the Transformer Division....read more.

 

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