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Hydrokinetic Power Makes Inroads In Renewable Energy Sector

Mississippi River

When it comes to renewable energy, most don’t consider hydrokinetic power “mainstream” like wind or solar energy. But as the technology improves for hydrokinetics, serious plans have emerged to incorporate it in America’s future energy generation portfolio.

For those who have not heard of it before, hydrokinetic energy uses the power of flowing water to generate electricity. However, instead of damming the river to drive water through turbines, it puts the turbines on the river bottom or mounted on barges to drive generators. As a result, it does not adversely affect water flow or local aquatic habitat.

Boston-based Free Flow Power is one company that is developing the technology for more mainstream use. They are currently looking at the Lower Mississippi River between Kentucky and Louisiana as a viable place to implement hydrokinetic power.

Already they have sought 25 permits for hydrokinetic projects, honing in on sites with ideal flow volume, flow velocity, and close proximity to transmission lines. Each site would host hundreds of turbines on pylons at the river bottom, which would spin with the water flow and transmit energy to the riverbank. The capacity for each turbine would be relatively small, with only about 40 kw of power generated. But obviously with numerous turbines located on the river bottom, power capacity would be multiplied several-fold.

The good thing about hydrokinetic power is that it avoids the large-scale environmental implications associated with hydroelectric dams. Out of necessity, dams often flood large tracts of nearby land and irreversibly affect river flow. They also serve as significant barriers to aquatic life that usually swims back and forth along the river. The turbines used for hydrokinetic power are large enough to allow fish to pass through, thus avoiding any long-term effects on aquatic life.

Testing for the new technology is already taking place in Alaska, where electricity provision for remote communities can be a challenge.

However, the technology is still in its infancy, so we might not see widespread adoption for several years still. Jerome Johnson from the Institute of Northern Engineering says that “hydrokinetic generators are at a stage where wind generators were 15 years ago.”

But the question still remains whether hydrokinetics will still be viable in 15 years, especially at the rate wind and solar power are progressing. Perhaps with some additional government subsidies (as has been done with wind and solar), the technology will advance to the stage where it will become economically competitive.

Do you think it would be a good idea for governments to invest further in hydrokinetic energy, or would our resources be better spent on other more established renewables such as wind, solar, and geothermal?

Image CC licensed by Ken Lund: Mississippi River

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