In the spring of 2007, on a floating platform in Manhattan’s East River just north of the bridge connecting Roosevelt Island and Queens, several construction workers equipped with hard hats and life vests were working to complete a delicate and task. Under the watchful eye of renewable energy entrepreneur Trey Taylor, co-founder of Verdant Power, the workers used ropes to carefully guide what looked like a scaled-down, snub-nosed wind turbine suspended from a crane down into the murky waters of the fast-flowing river. Painted a dull, functional blue, the turbine–technically a “free-flow kinetic hydropower system” built to harness the flow of rivers and and tides–descended slowly, finally entering the water and disappearing below the surface. It was the last of six Verdant turbines deployed that day, beginning Phase 2 of the Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy (RITE) project–the first of its kind in the United States, and one fraught with promise for a potentially vibrant but little-known sector of renewable energy. Touring the site, then New York State Lt. Governor David Paterson praised the project, which had received a $2 million grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. “Here we have a company that was founded by people who care about the environment … and this substantially decreases our dependence on oil-based fuels.” Verdant’s Taylor was just as ebullient in his remarks to reporters. ““We’re working toward energy independence and lowering greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “If we get four of five projects like this, it could make New York City the most renewable energy city in the world.”
Taylor had good reason to be optimistic. Verdant’s technology was cutting-edge yet streamlined and robust. Much like land-based turbines captured wind to generate electricity, Verdant’s kinetic hydropower turbines harnessed the energy of flowing water to turn its blades, generating electricity that was then fed into cables snaking along the riverbed and up onto Roosevelt Island, where it was meant to provide power to a parking garage and grocery store. Because the East River is not really a river but a tidal strait with a current that shifts daily from north to south, the turbines–twenty feet tall and 16 feet wide–were designed to pivot with the tide and always face the current, like a rooftop weathervane. A two-year prototype study had shown that the turbine blades’ 35 rotation-per-minute speed was slow enough to allows fish to simply swim around the devices, so environmental harm was not at issue. Plus, the underwater testing ground was strategically situated within view of the giant, oil and gas-powered Ravenswood electricity generating plant that supplies power to roughly a quarter of New York City. Verdant, by contrast, was the plucky, green upstart that ran its turbine testing operation from an old, refurbished shipping container on Roosevelt Island. The David vs. Goliath juxtaposition was ready made for media soundbites. And, most importantly, the technology worked. As soon as the turbines were in place, bolted to a narrow strip of riverbed, they began producing power.
And then they began to break down.
Only days after being deployed, the East River’s notoriously harsh currents began to take a toll. One by one, the turbine blades began to give way, breaking at their tips. Despite years of testing, it turned out that the blades, made of fiberglass stretched over a steel frame, were no match for the river. Forced to temporarily shut down the operation and redesign the blades, Taylor put a positive spin on the incident, telling a New York Times reporter that “The only way for us to learn is to get the turbines in the water and start breaking them.” Which is exactly what he did. Four months after the first turbine blades failed, Verdant replaced them with redesigned blades made from aluminum magnesium. But while the new, stronger blades proved resilient, after several months the project was beset by yet another costly setback when the bolts holding the blades to the turbines’ hubs gave way, forcing yet another shutdown, this time for nearly a year. Ever optimistic, Taylor noted that while they were working, the turbines generated around 7100 kilowatt hours of electricity–a world record for hydrokinetic power at the time. Taylor also still had the full backing of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, whose president, Paul Tonko, saw the failures as an expected part of the process of nurturing a nascent and evolving technology.
Despite Taylor’s upbeat comments, and notwithstanding that fact that new technologies almost always major problems on the road to commercialization, Verdant’s goal of building a 300-turbine strong power plant in the East River seemed more distant than ever. Besides having to spend precious time working on redesigning the turbines at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, Verdant also had to contend with federal regulators who demanded that Verdant spend more time and money conducting tests to make sure that the turbines did not endanger some turtles rarely found in the East River. And Taylor had to fend off competition in the form of Oceana Energy, a rival startup that had recently been given a federal permit to install turbines in the river north of Roosevelt Island.
Taylor persevered. In the summer of 2008, equipped with newly designed blades and hubs, Verdant once again lowered the machines into the river and hoped for the best. Day by day, as engineers monitored the turbines’ rotations from the shipping container on the Island, it became clear that, finally, Verdant had built a machine able to master the river currents. After more than a year of monitoring and testing, in 2010 Verdant applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a commercial license. In early 2012, the fledgling company made history by becoming the first to be granted a pilot project license for tidal energy. In an interview with Power Engineering magazine, Taylor discussed plans for establishing similar projects in Canada. As of late April, 2012, Verdant was busy preparing to install as many as 30 turbines along a 21-acre expanse of riverbed which, when completed, will constitute by far the world’s largest functioning marine power plant.
Verdant’s stop-and-start, decade-long path to the brink of commercial viability is in line with the struggle experienced by nearly all renewable energy technologies to compete with fossil fuels. As we’ve seen in previous chapters, wind energy struggled for nearly a century before becoming an established if still relatively small player in the global energy industry. Solar power, too, only very recently began to evolve away from its limiting niche as a ‘70s-era, tree-hugging utopian power source to acquire more legitimate status as a viable energy business. Comparatively, tidal energy devices (turbines and other machines) and other marine-based technologies, including wave power and ocean thermal energy conversion, are still very much in the nascent, just-now probing the proverbial (and literal) waters of commercial viability, despite existing in one form or another for nearly a century. To be sure, water-based, or hydropower, has long been an entrenched energy player. It’s by far the most successful and widely used form of renewable energy. Electricity generating dams are at work in 150 countries (the largest are in China), producing 3,427 terawatt-hours (equivalent to 3,427,000 megawatt hours), which accounts for around 16% of global electricity consumption. The U.S. alone has 2400 hydropower stations together generating about 95,000 megawatts–enough to supply more than 28 million homes with electricity.
By contrast, what I’ll refer to as “hydropower 2.0” (also commonly known as “ocean” or “marine” power)–wave and tidal energy, etc.–currently (as of spring 2012) produces precisely zero megawatts of useable power. Hydropwer 2.0 is so far off the renewable energy grid, metaphorically, that Al Gore barely mentions it in his book Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis. (Marine power technologies apparently don’t figure into Gore’s plan.) This is perhaps because, like wind and solar in the 1970s, ‘80s, and early ‘90s, marine energy is still in a sort of wild west, anything goes, let’s try a bunch of stuff and see what works, phase.Also unlike other, more mature renewable energy sectors, what’s called “new hydropower” (as opposed to old, staid technologies like water wheels and dam-based electricity generation stations) has not yet consolidated around a single, standard-setting technology. Instead, companies including Verdant Power, Chicago-based Hydro Green Energy, UK-based Pelamis Wave Power, Aquamarine Power, Wavegen, and AWS Ocean Energy, and U.S.-based Ocean Power Technologies, among others, are each developing their own, proprietary devices that harness the up-and-down motion of waves and back and forth movement of tides and convert them to usable power in the form of electricity. There’s the PowerBuoy (Ocean Power Tech), the Snake (Pelamis), the Wave Dragon (Wave Dragon ApS), the Anaconda (Checkmate SeaEnergy), the Oyster (Aquamarine), and dozens of others, each, of course, claiming to represent the cutting edge in ocean-power technology and the future of the industry.
But the ocean power industry, such as it is, is hardly assured of a future, despite its tantalizing promise. Like many renewable energy technologies–solar and wind in particular–ocean power boasts eye-popping numbers. Waves harbor a lot of raw power, and, in theory, ocean waves worldwide could potentially produce up to 80,000 terawatt hours of electricity–more than five times annual world energy consumption. The vast coastlines of the United States alone could produce enough energy to account for nearly six percent of the country’s yearly electricity consumption. Plus, the energy potential of waves and ocean tides is not only virtually unlimited but also predictable; advanced computer models allow monitors for forecast wavelength and wave frequency up to five days in advance. By now, though, it should come as no surprise that there’s always at least one major caveat where renewable energy is concerned, and ocean energy is no exception. Although devices for capturing and converting the power of waves and tides have been around for more than a century, a major reason why they’ve haven’t caught on is because the ocean is a notoriously volatile, unpredictable, and corrosive environment. The bulk of the waves that could potentially produce 80,000 terawatt hours of electricity are far out at sea, meaning that only waves occurring near shorelines–a relatively tiny fraction of the whole–are even remotely available as an energy source. Consequently, harvesting power from waves is limited to coastal areas often far from dense population centers that consume the most electricity. Finally, harnessing even the most accessible waves is no simple task. Wave power devices, whether in the form of large, tubular, sausage-like links (the Pelamis “snake”), a hinged flap attached to the seabed that pumps water at high pressure to drive an onshore turbine (Aquamarine’s Oyster), or a large buoy (Ocean Power Technology’s PowerBuoy), have to be able to hold up under the ocean’s dual-pronged attack of corrosive salinity and the often unpredictable power and crashing, churning waves.
As ocean power entrepreneurs and advocates are quick to point out, such seaworthy, battle-tested devices do exist and have been around in one form or another for many decades. Ocean power’s failure to emerge alongside wind, solar, biofuels, and even geothermal as a legitimate player in the renewable energy panoply at this stage has less to do with the quality and ingeniousness of its technology than with the perception–supported by a long history of outright failure and tantalizing almost-successes–that it will never amount to more than a niche source of clean power. Yet there are no lack of inventors, engineers, and entrepreneurs determined to prove this perception wrong. Because, just as inventive minds have been for more than a century, they’re mesmerized by moving water’s vast potential for providing clean, cheap power.