May 15, 2008

New Form of Generation Proposed for Niagara River

By Sharon Linstedt

Two alternative energy firms want to harness the fast-running Niagara River for "hydrokinetic" electric power generation.

The two firms -- one from Houston, and the other from Gloucester, Mass., -- intend to generate power using underwater turbines.

"We're studying dozens of major river sites that have the flow characteristics we need to generate power and build this new industry. The Niagara is one of the rivers that seems to fit our criteria," said Daniel R. Irvin, chief executive officer of Free Flow Power Corp. of Houston.

The emerging technology of hydrokinetic power generation harnesses river currents, as well as ocean tides and waves, to spin turbines submerged on the river floor. The energy produced by water flowing through the turbines is converted into electric power.

Unlike conventional hydropower, these systems do not require dams or water intake systems. Existing systems require minimal land- based equipment, and they link to power grids or specific end-users through traditional power lines.

The fledgling hydrokinetic industry bills itself as being extremely environment-friendly.

"At a time when we're juggling energy needs with all the negatives of traditional sources, we're offering a clean, renewable, low-impact option," said Mark R. Stover, vice president for Hydro Green of Gloucester.

Free Flow proposes to install 875 submerged turbines along a corridor from the Peace Bridge to the northern tip of Grand Island. The turbines, approximately six feet by six feet, would be mounted on the river bottom or attached to bridge supports. Clusters of approximately 10 grids of turbines would be placed about 1,000 feet apart.

Hydro Green wants to place its turbines in two sites below Niagara Falls, with 36 water-powered generators located over a 1.9- mile stretch of the Lower Niagara known as "The Whirlpool." It also proposes to install 54 turbines along a 1.2-mile section of the river, starting immediately upriver from the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge.

Hydro Green's turbines are about 12 feet in diameter and would be suspended from anchored barges.

If ultimately built as proposed, the power generating systems would produce about 2,700 kilowatts of electricity per year. That's about one-tenth of the power churned out by the Niagara Power Project. Both firms have filed applications with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and are seeking preliminary permits to allow them to conduct environmental and feasibility studies over the next three years. Depending on the outcome of those studies, the alternative power firms require federal licenses for turbine installation and power generation.

It is unlikely any system could be up and running before 2013.

FERC spokeswoman Celeste Miller characterized the granting of preliminary permits for hydrokinetic power as "pushing open the door" to research and discussion.

The public comment period on Free Flow's preliminary permit request closes next Thursday, and to date no individuals or groups have filed comments. Julie Barrett-O'Neill, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, said her group has yet to take a position on the proposals.

"It could be an exciting development for Western New York, but whenever you harvest something out of the natural world, you have to be careful. Nothing comes for free, not even tapping the river current," O'Neill said.

She noted that it is difficult to assess potential negative impact because the emerging technology has a scant track record. While FERC has issued nearly 100 preliminary permits so far this year, there are only a handful of pilot projects in operation.

Virginia-based Verdant Power operates one project in New York's East River, off Roosevelt Island. Underwater turbines began supplying power to a supermarket in 2007.

Neither Free Flow nor Hydro Green has working projects at this time, although Hydro Green is launching a two-turbine trial partnership with the city of Hastings, Minn.

"We need to better understand the technology and the general impact before we can determine what it means for the Niagara. She's a vital natural asset and has already endured a lot, so we need to be very, very careful," O'Neill said.

The list of potential concerns ranges from water-level shifts to impact on recreational access to harm to fish and other aquatic life.

Stover, whose company has 13 FERC permits in hand with two more pending, said he's used to fielding those questions, especially regarding fish kills.

"Unfounded rumors about the 'sushi effect' have plagued the hydropower industry since its inception," he said. "Hydrokinetic systems, like ours, have fewer blades that spin at lower RPMs than conventional hydropower, so there's even less to fear when it comes to fish impact."

While no public comments have been filed with FERC, it has received three notices of "intent to intervene" tied to Free Flow's application. The filings, which are aimed at giving outside parties legal standing in the review process, came from the U.S. Department of the Interior, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the State Power Authority.

"The Power Authority will be actively engaged in FERC proceedings on this matter to ensure that any proposed project will not affect river flows and power production at the Niagara Power Project, a facility that is integral to the Western New York economy," authority spokesman Michael Salzman said.

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Originally published by NEWS BUSINESS REPORTER.

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