Jul 16 2016

What’s lurking underwater could be the next energy solution

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(Energy.gov, 2006)

There is something very exciting happening in the East River in New York, but you probably won’t ever see it yourself. A system of underwater turbines have been installed to provide clean, renewable energy to the people of the Big Apple.

Verdant Power has been working on a project called the Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy (RITE) Project since 2002. Their efforts seem to be paying off, as they were issued a commercial license in 2012 to build 30 turbines across 20 acres in the East River. The project is being implemented in three phases, and is expected to produce 10 MW of energy by the final phase — that’s enough energy to power about 8,000 homes!


Engineers working on the RITE turbines. (ReGeneration Roadtrip, 2008, Flickr)

The East River is not actually a river, but rather part of an estuary that experiences tides. The turbines harness the kinetic energy of the tides without significantly changing the natural flow of the water. Traditional hydropower harnesses potential energy using dams, which has a much different effect on the aquatic ecosystem.

The turbines designed by Verdant Power engineers have three blades and are able to rotate as the direction of the tide changes. When the water is moving at above a certain velocity, a generator is turned and electricity is transferred through underwater cables to land.


A diagram of underwater turbines that harness tidal energy. (alex-mit, 2016, iStock)

The government voiced many concerns about marine species, transport along the channel, and the efficacy of the project. Verdant performed numerous studies and tests throughout each phase of the project to monitor the effects of the turbines.

Some of the tests included observations of sound pollution in the water, increased turbulence, and behavior of birds and fish. There hasn’t been evidence to show that the turbines have a significant negative impact on the East River’s environment, but Verdant will continue monitoring throughout the lifetime of the project.


An acoustic Doppler current profiler that gives information about the effects of turbines on water flow. (ReGeneration Roadtrip, 2008, Flickr)

Some of the monitoring devices were in place when Hurricane Sandy, like the acoustic Doppler current profiler. The data recorded during that time can help scientists understand how quickly flooding occurred. The more that is understood about extreme weather events, the better the city can be prepared for future storms.

This project wasn’t cheap with a price tag of over $8 million. The price is expected to significantly drop once the market grows and the technology is scaled up. There is reason to be optimistic as we have seen this happen in both the wind and solar markets.

Tidal energy is a relatively new field, but this technology could grow incredibly fast. The anti-renewable oil executives can’t use their eyesore argument on these turbines — they’re practically invisible!