Hydrokinetic Energy Update

The latest advancements in water power take center stage on the renewable energy front

There’s no denying the fact that renewable energy topics are featured in many news reports these days. Solar arrays are popping up on rooftops all across the country — on residential homes, commercial buildings, and industrial facilities. Small groups of wind turbines and complete wind farms are gobbling up large plots of land in rural America. What’s spurred rapid growth in this fickle market segment in recent years? Although a renewed interest by corporations and individuals to “go green” and environmental disasters like the Gulf Coast oil spill have helped move things along, the key driver of growth has been state and government funding and rebate programs. Without rebates and other incentives, this market segment would be suffering like most others have during this recent economic meltdown. I just wonder if this government support will eventually be in our best interest.

As I thought about all of the attention the sun and wind markets have captured in recent years, I began to wonder if anyone was still doing research on harnessing the power of another one of our natural resources — water. Those of us who can still recall our early history lessons should know that water wheels were used to process flour and grain in the Greco-Roman world and ancient Chinese civilizations. In the United States, the hydroelectric dam movement began in the late 1800s and ran strong through the early 1940s. But since that time, it’s been pretty quiet on the water power front. However, it appears there’s a renewed interest in harnessing the movement of water and converting it into new sources of electrical power.

Hydrokinetic technologies capture the kinetic energy present in the natural movement of rivers and oceans. The devices are typically categorized as wave energy converters (which go by the names of oscillating water columns, point absorbers, attenuators, or overtopping devices) or rotating units. But as with any new technology, every prototype and pilot project requires millions of dollars in research and development funding prior to commercialization — welcome back, the U.S. government.

In early September, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced 27 project selections that will receive more than $37 million in funding to accelerate the technological development and deployment of marine and hydrokinetic technologies. The DOE will leverage private sector investments by providing cost-shared funding to the industry. Reading through the list of projects is quite interesting. Just think, you might one day find yourself installing a Galloping Hydrokinetic Energy Extraction Device, a Cycloidal Wave Energy Converter, a PowerBuoy, or a River In-Stream Energy Conversion Device. The three projects identified for open water testing, demonstration, and operation will take place in the Oregon Territorial Sea, Cobscook Bay off Eastport, Maine, and Admiralty Inlet of Puget Sound.

So once again, the question of government support comes to mind. Although all of these hydrokinetic technology projects excite me from a technical standpoint, the millions of dollars of federal funding being thrown at them frustrate me. I would like to believe that our government truly supports a comprehensive clean energy policy for our country, but is it in the best interest of the majority of Americans to help fund the research and development efforts of private sector companies? I think not.

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