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East River Underwater Turbines Give Jolt to City Power Grid

By Amy Zimmer | January 24, 2012 3:55pm
Verdant Power's turbines being transported in the East River in 2008.
Verdant Power's turbines being transported in the East River in 2008.
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Verdant Power, Inc.

MANHATTAN — Tidal energy is blowing wind power out of the water.

Using underwater turbines in the East River off the coast of Roosevelt Island, Verdant Power will be electrifying New York with roughly 1 megawatt captured from the strait's natural tidal currents — enough for an estimated 1,000 city homes.  Verdant was awarded on Monday the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's first pilot license for tidal power in the country.

"Issuing a pilot license for an innovative technology is a major step in the effort to help our country meet our renewable energy goals," the commission's chairman, Jon Wellinghoff, said in a statement. It will "allow for exploration of new renewable technologies while protecting the environment," Wellinghoff added.

Verdant will mount up to 30 turbine generators over the next few years on the East River's riverbed, said Trey Taylor, Verdant's co-founder and president. 

"During a very difficult global economic time for renewable energy, this is very hopeful," Taylor said. "This is a high water mark or, at least, a new milestone for this industry."

The 10-year license for Verdant's Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy Project marks the third phase of the company's kinetic hydropower project.  Verdant began testing prototypes of its tidal turbines in 2002 and then in 2006 began demonstrating six full-scale tidal turbines in the East River — "representing the world's first operation of a grid-connected tidal turbine array," Verdant's website said.

Rather than getting energy from upstate New York, these turbines are plugging directly into the local distribution grid.

Those six turbines produced energy that powered a Gristedes and a parking garage on Roosevelt Island. It has not yet been determined what the expanded grid of turbines will power, Taylor said, suggesting that some of it could power electric car stations inside Roosevelt Island's parking garages.

He also is looking forward to collaborating on research and design with faculty from Cornell University's new tech campus coming to Roosevelt Island. He's already had discussions with the school, he said.

The Energy Regulatory Commission said projects eligible for the pilot license must be small, short term and not located in an environmentally-sensitive area. The project must have the ability to be removed on short notice.

"The beauty of this type of technology is that it's not like building a dam," Taylor said. "If we run into any problems, we can just take [the turbines] out."

During the project's second phase, Verdant monitored the marine habitat and will continue watching fish migration.

"The results of these activities showed no observed evidence of increased fish mortality or injury, nor any irregular bird activity in the project area," Verdant's website said. "The data demonstrate that fish avoid zones of impact with Verdant Power’s system and populate inshore areas."

New York's project will be the company's "showcase," in what Taylor hopes will be the beginning a large movement of this type of energy.

The turbines are site specific and can be altered for deeper water and faster currents, Taylor noted. In another body of water, 30 turbines could generate 15 megawatts, he said.