Hydrokinetic Power: The Next Wave in Renewable Energy?

What could be more dependable than the tides?  They sweep in and out once or twice a day, depending on the location, and you can find their precise timing and height in any newspaper in America.  Or tide app, for the tech-savvy mariner.

For decades, cutting-edge renewable energy companies have been experimenting with the best ways to tap the massive power of tides and waves, and now it looks like the industry is finally set to have its first mainstream success in the United States.

Two weeks ago, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission awarded the first commercial license for tidal power in the United States to Verdant Power.  The company wants to expand the number of its tidal turbines in New York City’s East River over the next ten years, ultimately generating about 1 megawatt of electricity, enough to power 9,500 New York homes.  Last year we covered Verdant’s East River project as it was wrapping up five years of turbine design testing in the tidal strait’s notorious currents.  After a few snapped blades and, impressively, not a single injured fish, the company is ready to expand to 30 turbines by 2015.

FERC agrees, issuing a first-of-its-kind pilot project license created by the agency in 2008 to allow marine renewable energy developers a chance to run small-scale tests of their technologies.

While Verdant may be the first tidal project to gain approval, there is momentum building behind the wave and tidal power industry overall.  FERC reports that there are 32 ocean energy projects in the works, not to mention another 69 projects that will similarly tap the energy of flowing rivers (all of these projects are classified as “hydrokinetic”).

The estimated 5,700 megawatts of electricity that could be generated by the proposed tidal and wave projects represent just a fraction of the United States' marine renewable energy potential.  Recently the Department of Energy released two reports concluding that the nation’s waves and tides could provide up to 15 percent of America’s electricity.  Of course actually harnessing all of that energy in such a harsh environment is not entirely realistic.  But since most major coastal cities – and their significant electricity demand – are built near potentially excellent sites for tidal and wave energy, location alone is enticing enough to earn a lot of private and federal investment.

In his recent State of the Union, President Obama promised that he would “double down” on the nation’s clean energy future.  Well, that future will be increasingly self-reliant: cities and towns taking advantage of local resources, be they wind, solar, geothermal, or energy efficiency and conservation.  Consider waves, tides and other hydrokinetic sources as yet one more option in development, and a highly dependable option at that.

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