Hydrokinetics – The Renewable “Silver Bullet”

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:37 pm by Administrator

In searching for technologies that can aid in the transition to a low carbon environment the following characteristics would define the ideal new energy source;

Characteristic Wind PV Solar Large
Requires no fuel for operation
Reliable at peak demand times including winters in middle latitudes
Does not negatively impact the environment in a significant way1
Available in most geographic areas

1Of course some would argue that wind turbines and utility scale solar have negative environmental impacts but those are not severe compared to the environmental advantages of transitioning away from a hydro-carbon based economy.

From the table above the clear winner is hydro-kinetics which captures the energy of water flowing in a river without using a large reservoir.  And yet this is the least developed renewable source on the planet.  I would suggest that this ideal energy source faces challenges which are not technical but rather are political and regulatory.  This posting will discuss the state of hydro-kinetic developments and suggest a path forward towards wide-spread deployment (this post focuses on river hydro-kinetics technologies deployed successfully in North America – there are other projects underway overseas but these face many of the same issues discussed here).

Hydro-kinetics – An Attractive But Elusive Technology

 A number of companies have spent the last two decades attempting to commercialize hydro-kinetic turbines in one form or another.  These companies have consumed, in aggregate, well over $100 million in Research & Development funding, have overcome many technical challenges and have staged numerous successful trial installations.  However, despite the best efforts of talented and dedicated teams none of these companies have achieved a commercial deployment of a single hydro-kinetic turbine.

Free Flow Power

Free Flow Power developed a 40 KW turbine unit which was deployed in a test configuration in the Mississippi River near Baton Rouge for six months in 2011.  The results of the tests were encouraging and the company undertook detailed site evaluations and identified more than 3 dozen locations on the Mississippi where turbines could be installed.  A serious drought and low water levels in 2012 called into question the viability of many of the sites and the company decided to focus on retrofitting conventional turbines in existing dams that did not already have electrical generation facilities.

In late 2014 the company was split into a non-operating entity holding the Intellectual Property rights for the SmarTurbine and a new company, Rye Development was formed to pursue the dam retrofitting.


Hydro Green Energy

Hydro Green developed a 100 KW hydro-kinetic turbine unit which was deployed near Hastings Minnesota in 2009 in what is claimed to be the first licensed hydro-kinetic generating facility in the U.S.  This turbine operated until 2012 when Hydro Green Energy, like Free Flow Power, decided to focus on dam retrofit.


Clean Current

Clean Current was a Hydro-kinetic company that developed several versions of turbines for use in both saltwater and freshwater environments.  They conducted several tests of the technology, most recently at the Canadian Hydrokinetic Test Centre on the Winnipeg River in Manitoba from September, 2013 to May, 2014.  At the end of May, 2015 it was announced that the company was being wound down after 15 years of Research & Development work.


RER Hydro

With substantial funding from the Quebec Government RER Hydro developed a technologically advanced hydro-kinetic turbine unit which was deployed in the St. Lawrence River near the city of Montreal in 2010.  It functioned as designed for more than 4 years.

Based upon the success of this initial test the Boeing Corporation entered into a global marketing and distribution agreement for the TREK turbines in November, 2013.  Phase II of the RER Hydro business plan involved the production of 6 additional turbine units in a brand new manufacturing facility in Becancour Québec opened to great fanfare November 11, 2013.

On April 7, 2014 the Parti Québecois lost the Provincial election.  The new Liberal majority government immediately halted payments to RER Hydro that had previously been confirmed.

With turbine construction for Phase II well underway and purchase agreements being in place with suppliers RER Hydro was immediately short of funds. Shortly thereafter the company made a court application for the Issuance of an Initial Order under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act which was granted.  All RER Hydro staff were laid off in July, 2014 and after several further court applications what remains of RER Hydro is the Intellectual Property, some inventory related to the turbines being constructed and the contracts with the Boeing Corporation.  The company was declared bankrupt at the end of 2015.


Verdant Power

Verdant has been working on tidal power turbines in the New York City area for more than 15 years. From 2006-2009 KHPS (Gen4) turbines were installed in the East River in a grid-connected configuration as part of the Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy (RITE) project. In 2012 Verdant was awarded the first commercial license for tidal power issued in the U.S. There is no indication that any turbines have been deployed or power generated in regards to this license.

Turbines developed by Verdant Power have been proposed to be installed as part of the Cornwall Ontario River Energy (CORE) project with $4.5 million in funding from various government agencies and utilities. The project has been ongoing since 2007 but it appears that in 2013 the project was abandoned.

In the spring of 2016 Verdant announced the formation of a partnership that will focus on hydro-kinetic projects in Ireland.


Instream Energy

Instream was formed in Vancouver in 2008.  In 2010 the company, in partnership with Powertech Labs, deployed an array of 4 25 KW turbines near the Duncan Dam in British Columbia, Canada.

In August, 2013 a second demonstration site was established near Yakima, Washington State, U.S.  As of August, 2016 the company has plans for 2 more demonstration sites in the U.S. and anticipates a project in Wales, U.K. in 2019.


Hydro-Kinetics vs. Wind and Solar

It seems clear from the number of successful demonstration projects that have been undertaken over the past decade that the engineering problem of manufacturing a hydro-kinetic turbine that can reliably generate electricity has been largely solved.  It also seems clear that by combining the engineering expertise and learnings from several of the existing designs any residual problems can be resolved quickly and new designs that minimize fabrication costs could be developed.

The barriers to the implementation of hydro-kinetics are no longer technical.

Hydro-kinetics generation, like large-scale hydro and geothermal is qualitatively different from wind and solar power because it is reliable and dispatchable.  As a result, a backup power source (natural gas-fired plants being the most popular alternative in the current low gas price environment) is not required.  This is a very significant advantage which is not reflected in the various economic analyses that are used to justify regulatory and financial support for renewable energy.

In order to fully transition away from a hydro-carbon based economy it is necessary to have access to reliable electricity generation at times of peak demand.  In the middle and northern latitudes (north of about 35 degrees) peak demand occurs in the late afternoon and evening as the requirements for light and heat reach their maximum.  Obviously there is no solar power available at that time.  Wind energy is highly variable and generally speaking cannot be relied upon to generate electricity during a specific time period.

The most valuable measure of the contribution of wind generation would be the amount of wind available during peak demand times.  Very few organizations are willing to investigate that important metric because it would be hugely detrimental to the case for subsidizing wind energy.

MISO’s Independent Market Monitor (Potomac Economics) noted in a June, 2013 report on page 39 that

“wind resource output is negatively correlated with load and often contributes to congestion at higher output levels, so hourly-integrated prices often overstate the economic value of wind generation”

The report states that the MISO practice of counting 13.3% of wind as reliable is much too high.  They recommend instead that a value of 2.7% would be more appropriate (page 16 of the report).

If anyone was inclined to make a truly fair comparison of generation costs for wind and solar there would have to be a very large additional cost to maintain a reliable backup generation source for when wind and solar were not available.  This would probably come close to doubling the true cost of wind and solar generation.

Hydro-kinetics sources do not suffer from this problem.  They are reliable and predictable and can scale up to any degree without causing problems on the grid.  No backup generation sources are required.

Hydro-kinetics generated electricity is much more expensive per kw-hour of nameplate capacity than wind and solar – probably on the order of $8-10/kw of capacity.  But when reasonable capacity factors for wind and solar are considered (30% and 15% to be on the generous side) then the costs are not significantly different.  But the very important advantage of hydro-kinetics is that it is reliable during times of peak demand.

As long as a KW-hour of electricity is judged to be of equal value no matter the source then wind and solar PV appear to be much lower in cost than hydro-kinetics.


The Value of a Hydro-kinetics Partnership

The barrier to wide-spread implementation of hydro-kinetic generation is not technical.

The primary barrier is the perception, widely held amongst renewable energy advocates, government officials, politicians, and funding agencies, that wind and solar PV are the best options to fight climate change.

Utilities, that have a deeper understanding of generation issues and understand the problems associated with wind and solar PV generation, are not actively engaged in the debate.  This is because they largely see renewable generation as a nuisance that they have to deal with, like environmental regulations.  They continue to build out new natural gas fired plants and even a few nuclear plants to provide reliable generation.  They also are learning to manage rapid cycling of their plants in response to fluctuations in renewable generation.

Utilities do not own the majority of wind and solar farms and of course have no financial interest in distributed sources such as roof-top solar.

Finally, because they are either publicly owned, or earn an agreed upon return regulated by Public Utility Commissions, utilities are not particularly concerned about any additional costs associated with unreliable and unpredictable wind and solar PV generation.  Whatever costs they have to incur, including maintaining a duplicate fleet of generation assets that can be available when wind and solar are not, will ultimately be born by the rate-payers, not the utilities.  Consequently, utilities are not advocating for sensible options like hydro-kinetics.

The other perception, which is unfortunately firmly grounded in reality, is that hydro-kinetic generation has not been proven to be a really viable option at this time.

All of the hydro-kinetic companies discussed in this post are relatively tiny, privately held firms that are generally under-staffed and under-capitalized.  That statement is not meant as a criticism – these firms have achieved remarkable engineering accomplishments and have overcome very difficult technical challenges.   But it would not be much of an exaggeration to say that all of these companies are about one failed grant application or unsuccessful project away from bankruptcy.  Several have already succumbed.

This situation lacks “critical mass” in every dimension – economic, political, regulatory.

The only way to overturn the perception that wind and solar PV are better options than hydro-kinetics is through a very significant lobbying and public relations effort focused not only on national politicians in the U.S. and Canada, but also on regulatory agencies and utilities.  Hydro-kinetics is a superior option.  No exaggeration is needed to make the case.  But the case does need to be made.  Regulatory agencies and even utilities need to be strong advocates.

Politicians need to believe that additional support in the form of production tax credits or feed-in-tariffs as well as increased R&D funding are justifiable based upon the superior value of hydro-kinetics as compared to wind and solar PV.

At the moment a number of small companies are advocating different approaches and technologies using staff resources that have limited time and money to tell their stories.  Decision makers are faced with trying to choose a “winner” which leads to no decision at all in many cases.

A partnership of these firms could fund a professional and credible full-time lobbying effort.  As unsavory as that might seem to leaders focused on the development of hydro-kinetic technology the reality is that wind and solar PV already have entrenched and vocal proponents at all levels of government.

A partnership of these firms could also fund resources dedicated to interfacing with various regulators to understand their concerns and educate them with regards to hydro-kinetic technology.

Rye Development and Hydro Green Energy have extensive experience with the complexities of licensing facilities on the Mississippi, which has to be one of the primary targets for hydro-kinetic development.

Instream Energy, as well as former staff members from Clean Current and RER Hydro, have knowledge and contacts within the Canadian regulatory establishment.  The Fraser and St. Lawrence rivers also have great potential for hydro-kinetic development.

Verdant Energy has had success with regulators with regards to tidal energy development.

The pooled expertise of these firms with respect to regulatory and environmental matters would represent a very significant resource to aid in the advocacy of hydro-kinetics in North America.

Would a partnership of hydro-kinetic firms require that some technologies be abandoned?  Only if it made sense.

It is likely that collaboration on engineering issues under mutual non-disclosures would be beneficial to all parties, each of which would retain the Intellectual Property for their particular implementations.

Rationalization of the supply chain for major components and consolidation of some fabrication would reduce costs by increasing volumes even if the final products were quite different.

Centralization of some non-core administrative functions such as web site maintenance, legal services, and grant application preparation could be explored in order to reduce costs.

The “outside world” would benefit from having a single communications channel and a single core message representing hydro-kinetics.   The various technologies being offered by partner companies would be presented as options to address a particular opportunity.

It would be possible to have competing solutions proposed for a particular project in some circumstances but that would not be ideal.  It should be kept in mind that the real competition is wind and solar PV, not other hydro-kinetic technologies.  It would be preferable for the partnership to advocate one technology for a particular opportunity based upon the geographic location and availability of support staff and resources.  The possibility of supplementing staff at one organization with knowledgeable and experienced staff from one of the other partners would enhance the credibility of a response to any particular opportunity.


In Conclusion

Hydro-kinetics should be one of the most important foundations for a transition to a sustainable energy environment; more environmentally benign than large scale hydro, more reliable than wind or solar PV, and vastly scalable with every large river offering development potential.

Given the amount of investment and engineering effort that has been undertaken to date without attaining commercialization it seems clear that the current decentralized approach is not very effective.  A hydro-kinetics partnership would allow the technology to attain critical mass without compromising the technical achievements that have been made or will be made in the future by partner companies.

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  1. ScouseCanuck said,

    March 8, 2017 at 6:09 pm

    This is the second article on this blog which completely ignores other solutions in favour of back-up generation to address the solar/wind availability issue? It really seems that the author cannot shed his oil & gas blinkers.
    Agreed, storage is the holy grail for solar and wind, but there are a variety of solutions under development:
    Pumped hydro (130GW worldwide), compressed air, chemical energy, and liquid metal batteries.

  2. Administrator said,

    March 8, 2017 at 7:33 pm

    I have not ignored other storage solutions. I have written a post about all of the ones you mention and in addition I have discussed flywheels, funicular railways, hydraulic storage, and hydrogen. The truth of the matter, as based upon factual evidence, is that no technology other than pumped hydro and molten salt at CSP plants has been implemented in the real world to provide more than 100 MW-hours of storage. Pumped hydro is severely constrained by geographic requirements. If you know of projects that really demonstrate the ability to be scaled up to GW-Hour size please provide links. My point has always been that I believe that storage solutions can be developed but only with a very large increase in R&D funding as well as feed-in-tariffs for energy produced from storage. Saying that there isn’t a problem will certainly not motivate researchers to try and solve the problem or politicians to provide more funding.

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