An energy company from Texas, Hydro Green Energy, received early permits allowing it to study the possibility of installing 90 underwater turbines on the U.S. side of the Niagara River, in upstate New York. The permits allow the company to spend up to three years gathering data for a license application to pursue its proposed hydrokinetic power plant. If the economic case is there and the environmental impact turns out to be minimal, Hydro Green intends to suspend turbines from anchored barges, generating up to 140 megawatts of electricity.

The turbines, which are 12 feet in diameter, would contribute just a small fraction of the power generated by the hydroelectric dams at Niagara Falls, which  have a capacity of about 4.4 gigawatts. But the project holds a great deal of promise for a widespread use of renewable energy that is much less environmentally disruptive than its larger cousin, hydroelectric dams. Hydro Green's turbines turn slowly, which would keep fish safe. And according to another company, Free Flow Power (which the Buffalo News Opinion says is also is eyeing the Niagara River as a site for underwater turbines; we covered the energy start-up’s plans for underwater turbines in the Mississippi last April), rivers are ideal locations for hydrokinetic projects because they typically have easy access to the grid, water flows in a consistent direction (that is, no tides), and an established hydropower industry has set the baseline for environmental impact assessments (which can simplify and speed up the permitting process for newcomers like these two energy companies). 

Hydrokinetic power is still, clearly, in its infancy. Tidal power, which requires a similar but distinct type of turbine design, is just now beginning to see its first few kilowatts of commercial power get generated. 

This summer, Hydro Green began investigating what could become the world’s first hybrid wind-hydrokinetic power project, which could become a future model for offshore energy production. Hydro Green and its partner, Wind Energy Systems Technology Group, are studying the feasibility of building a wind-hydro farm in the Gulf of Mexico. A 2007 study from the Electric Power Research Institute bolsters their business case: according to the report, by 2025 the U.S. could develop at least 13,000 megawatts – enough to power 12 million homes – of river and ocean-based hydrokinetic energy.

Story by Sandra Upson. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008.