U.S. invests big in new generation hydropower

Hydropower may take on entirely different dimension should the technologies receiving a new round of federal grants prove commercially viable.

The 27 projects selected Thursday for $37 million in clean energy cash include tidal-powered buoys, current-capturing undersea devices and various devices that generate power from waterflow wherever it can be harnessed.

"These innovative projects will help grow water power's contribution to America's clean energy economy," said Steven Chu, U.S. Department of Energy secretary, in a statement. He said it's the largest investment of federal money to date in marine and hydrokinetic technologies.

Investment in marine hydropower has grown significantly in recent years, following similar trends in other forms of alternative energy. Earlier this year, the British subsidiary of German utility E.ON AG brought its first wave energy hydropower device, capable of 750 kilowatts, to the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney, Scotland, according to renewableenergyworld.com. E.ON UK CEO Paul Golby called it "a milestone in marine technology."

However, much of the technology is still in that "wouldn't that be cool" stage, but the private sector sees promise and is investing big in a raft of concepts and competing systems. Alternative-energy-news.info has a round up of more than a dozen.

The DOE-funded projects involve the private sector, universities, national laboratories and other groups. They harness waves, tides, currents, thermal gradients and rivers. The grants are meant to develop the technologies and leverage financial backing from other sources.

Major projects include:
  • A 150-kilowatt PowerBuoy system in the Oregon seas by Pennington, N.J.-based Ocean Power Technologies Inc. DOE is putting up $2.4 million, about half the project's cost.
  • Five tidal turbines from Portland, Maine-based Ocean Renewable Power Co. that capture and harness cross flows at depths of up to 150 feet. DOE is putting up $10 million, about half the cost.
  • Two 10-meter diameter turbines in Puget Sound's Admiralty Inlet by Snohomish County Public Utility District in Everett, Wash. DOE is pitching in $10 million, about half the cost.

Other projects include a device that converts fast-moving river currents to energy by Pittsburgh-based Bayer Material Science LLC. DOE is giving it $240,000.

Also getting $240,000 is an "innovative air pressure device utilizing bi-directional turbines" to capture wave energy by Salem, Ore.-based M3 Wave Energy Systems LLC.

The Regents of the University of California in Davis received $158,000 to develop a reliable and cost-effective tidal turbine, while Makai Ocean Engineering Inc. in Kailua, Hawaii got $240,000 to study ocean thermal energy conversion.

Photo: Ocean Power Technologies Inc.'s Oregon ocean power device.