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Power Turbines Will Rely on Tidal Forces

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Power Turbines Will Rely on Tidal Forces

Environment

Power Turbines Will Rely on Tidal Forces

Power Turbines Will Rely on Tidal Forces

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Under a plan by Virginia-based Verdant Power, turbines like this will be installed at the bottom of New York's East River. Photo courtesy of Verdant Power hide caption

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Photo courtesy of Verdant Power

In a trial of the first underwater turbines in the United States, turbines will remain in the East River for a year and a half, supplying electric power to a parking garage and supermarket on New York City's Roosevelt Island. Businesses and communities have long been looking for ways to harness the tidal energy in waterways along the U.S. coastline.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Later this month New York City is scheduled to become the site of the nation's first major test project to generate electricity from underwater turbines. These are large rotors designed to spin with the rising and falling tides. As NPR's Adam Hochberg reports, New York isn't the only city considering the technology.

ADAM HOCHBERG: For people in the renewable energy business, one of the most promising projects to harness green power is taking place in the middle of one of America's most polluted cities.

Mr. TREY TAYLOR (President, Verdant Power): We're looking at the east channel of the East River and you can see this marvelous current coming through here.

HOCHBERG: Trey Taylor is president of a company called Verdant Power, a small firm that sees potential in that murky current between Manhattan and Queens. Verdant is planning to install turbines 40 feet below the surface of the East River, cylindrical machines with blades that rotate like windmills as the tide ebbs and flows through the center of New York.

Mr. TAYLOR: What we're doing is building a power plant that can't be seen, that's underwater. And the basic physics of how we produce energy is much like wind. It's the sweep of the blade and the speed of the current. So if we have faster currents, we can produce more energy.

HOCHBERG: The currents along the East River are among the most turbulent in the country, fast enough that when Taylor's company submerges two turbines here this fall he expects their blades to spin about 32 times a minute. The energy they create will power the lights at a nearby supermarket and parking garage as part of an 18-month test of tidal technology.

Yan Kishinevsky of the New York Power Authority hopes the project yields a new source of clean, reliable electricity for a city that currently uses more power than it produces.

Mr. YAN KISHINEVSKY (New York Power Authority): What needs to be done is more in-city generation in New York City. So any good that can be done, even on a small scale, is really contributing very nicely to a big picture. And if that contribution is green contribution without emission makes it even better.

HOCHBERG: The New York tidal project is the first of several being considered around the country. San Francisco leaders have discussed installing turbines near the Golden Gate Bridge, while developers are seeking permits for projects in Maine, Washington State, and Alaska.

Roger Bedard at the Electric Power Research Institute says the technology's potential is relatively small. Only about half a dozen American waterways have strong enough currents to support it.

Still, he predicts in those areas, tidal energy plants could be up and running within ten years.

Mr. ROGER BEDARD (Electric Power Research Institute): This technology is a time whose come. Now is the right time. The price of fossil fuel is going up. We're becoming much more aware of greenhouse gasses. We're much more aware in terms of energy security needs and I think that's opening up a lot of interest in tidal technologies right now.

HOCHBERG: Underwater turbines already are generating power in Europe but U.S. development has been slow, hampered by technological challenges, regulatory delays, and in some places, strong opposition from people who use the water in more familiar ways.

TONY DeLERNIA(ph) (Charter Boat Pilot; Teacher, Kings Community College): Oh, that was a fish! That was a fish!

HOCHBERG: Tony DeLernia pilots a charter fishing boat on the East River and teaches maritime technology at New York's Kingsborough Community College. One of his favorite places to drop a line in the water is the very spot where Verdant plans to install the turbines.

Mr. DeLERNIA: When this part of the river is hot, it's really hot, and people love fishing it.

HOCHBERG: When you say it's hot, you mean…

Mr. DeLERNIA: That means productive. Hot, I mean catch lots of fish. I mean, you'll catch three fish other locations in the river. You'll catch ten fish there.

HOCHBERG: DeLernia fears that will change once the turbines are installed. He says he supports the idea of renewable energy but worries the location of the Verdant project will jeopardize the river's striped bass.

Mr. DeLERNIA: I'm afraid that as the fish travel through the east channel on the path that I've found that they follow because of my fishing activity, that they're going to encounter these propellers. And even if fish were not struck, they were not damaged - fisherman would lose a prime fishing location, they'd be unable to fish there anymore.

HOCHBERG: Verdant executives stress the test phase of their project includes extensive monitoring of underwater life and New York regulators say they'll demand assurance the technology is harmless before they allow it to become more widespread.

Similar concerns from fisherman have already scuttled a proposed turbine project in Delaware, and supporters of tidal energy concede that overcoming local opposition is likely to be a challenge as they try to develop this latest form of renewable power.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News.

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