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Power Grab

The dawn of a new era in electric power generation may be drawing near in the United States, and by some indications, developments in New Orleans could lead the way. An installation soon to be tested in the Mississippi River will help determine the viability of hydrokinetics as a means of generating electricity. Depending on the results of this and other tests, the local area could have access to a new source of electric power within the next five years.

Free Flow Power Corp. is a Massachusetts-based company bent on proving that moving water can be a reliable and economically feasible source of power without the need for a massive dam or other flow-control structure. The company has focused on the lower Mississippi River as its proving ground. Working closely with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Army Corps of Engineers, the company identified dozens of sites on the Mississippi River as potential targets for hydrokinetic installations.

Ultimately, in multiple sites in the river, the company plans to install clusters of 10-foot-wide, 14-foot-long turbines that would be mounted on pilings in the riverbed and would operate close to the river bottom. This spring’s test, however, will consist of a single turbine suspended from a floating mount. The idea, says Free Flow Power’s New Orleans project director Jon Guidroz, isn’t to begin generating electricity just yet, but rather to see how the turbine “behaves” in the water.

“The turbines are very passive in the way they interact with the river,” Guidroz says. “We’d be using less than one percent of the water column at any given point.”

Observing that first turbine in action will be a very preliminary step in assessing how large numbers of the machines might perform in the murky waters of a river that sweeps all manner of objects along as it charges toward the Gulf of Mexico. Anyone who seeks to plop any kind of installation at the bottom of the Mississippi must deal with a few concerns.

For one, the river is filled with traffic ranging from ocean-going freighters and barges to car-and-passenger ferries and paddlewheel tour boats. How can an operator ensure that the turbines won’t impede navigation, or worse, cause an accident?

Then there’s the matter of silt in the river, which tends to accumulate along the bottom, rendering the need for periodic dredging in order to keep the channel open to large ships. How will the turbines fit into that process? And how will they hold up under the beating they could take from the debris that’s almost certain to slam into them?

Last, but far from least, it will be crucial to the success of the project to minimize the impact of the turbines on fish and other underwater life and habitat.

“We feel confident that we have developed a system and technology that can be implemented with all competing uses of the waterway, but we need to go through the process,” Guidroz says, referring to the myriad studies, tests and reviews that are necessary in order to obtain a FERC license to operate the power-generating system.

If the company succeeds, the results could be groundbreaking. Guidroz says Free Flow Power is exploring “88 patches of river” along the Mississippi River basin. Within each of those project sites, the company could install as many as 600 turbines per mile, meaning that tens of thousands of turbines could end up churning simultaneously to send power via cables to a landside grid.

Free Flow Power won a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to pay for the initial testing of the turbines. As to how large the total tab for this installation could grow, Guidroz is vague. “We’ll have to see when we finish,” he says.

Clearly, the company is banking on big returns through the sale of electricity. Guidroz says the company has proposed to install three gigawatts of power capacity in the river. “That’s the equivalent of about two nuclear power plants, or enough to power almost 2.5 million American homes,” he says.

Purchasers of the power could be a local utility or a large industrial user, such as a manufacturing plant or refinery.
Guidroz concedes that, particularly in an area like New Orleans where electricity costs are relatively low, hydropower will be a more costly alternative. But up against other renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, “We believe we can compete,” he says.

A key selling point of hydropower is reliability. While the generating capacity of solar panels and wind turbines declines on cloudy or windless days, the Mississippi River rolls 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Though its velocity varies, Guidroz says: “We can predict what the river’s going to do based on rainfalls and upriver gauges, so we know what to expect as much as a week or two in advance.” That predictability can minimize adverse fluctuations on the power grid.

Free Flow Power is investing heavily in its proposal, but it is not without competition. A handful of rivals includes Houston-based HydroGreen Energy LLC, which recently tested a turbine at a Corps of Engineers lock in Minnesota. The test aimed to assess the impact of the spinning turbine on a large quantity of fish that were released and made to swim through the turbines. The company reportedly claimed the test produced only one fish casualty.

Meanwhile, Free Flow Power’s target for filing its license application with FERC is mid-2013. If all goes well, construction could begin in late 2014, at which point south Louisiana might have an opportunity to make a name for itself – again – in the energy business.

“New Orleans could be at the forefront in launching this new industry,” Guidroz says. Stay tuned.

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