What's a Dutch countryside without watermills? The Colorado River without the Hoover Dam? RiverSphere, a project arm of the Tulane/Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research, has proposed a facility to explore hydrokinetic energy in New Orleans, putting the city on the map of hydroelectric innovators.
While the river is no stranger to innovation, fitted with some of the largest hydroelectric dams of the 20th century, that construction lead to environmental devastation, from decimated fish populations to disrupted currents and river ecology. Doug Meffert, RiverSphere's project director, envisions the Mississippi River lined with technologies that not only are safe for the environment, but also can provide New Orleans with plenty of renewable energy.
"It's the sleeping giant for renewable energies," Meffert says. "Hydroelectric has gotten such a bad rap for some very justifiable reasons over the last several decades. These very large turbines that needed incredible investments in engineering and infrastructure to basically dam up entire river systems. That's what people have tended to think of when they think of hydroelectric — impeding a salmon's ability to spawn, or flooding out entire valleys and destroying rare species. That's an antiquated model. That's nowhere near where this type of energy is going now. It's a whole new energy source."
RiverSphere will join national hydrokinetic technology developers as a plugged-in research and development wing, where green tech developers can test the ecological effects of their turbines.
"What Tulane brings to the table is a leader in water resource research and education, whether that's river systems, estuaries or coastal wetlands," Meffert says. "With hydrokinetics there's still so much we need to learn: How do they perform in these different water bodies? How do the things in the water — whether its fish, debris or sediment — impact, or are they impacted by these different technologies? That's the part that Tulane does. That's the part that almost all of these (companies) are still striving to figure out."
What the companies do have, however, are retrofittable turbines that could be attached to barges, wharves, bridges and other structures already in place, no dams necessary. These turbines draw power from the water's currents to generate energy.
"Hydrokinetic — all it means is water movement," Meffert says. "The water's moving something. Some (turbines) work more like an eggbeater that rotates vertically, where some of these turbines operate like a pinwheel, which spins horizontally. We want to test a number of those."
Meffert says five companies developed turbines to test in the river, including the Texas company Hydro Green, which earlier this year unveiled the country's first-ever commercial hydrokinetic turbine in Minnesota. Louisiana-based Marmac is developing a model Meffert describes like an upside-down kite that trolls under the water's surface. Massachusetts-based Free Flow Power plans to have its turbine attached to a barge near Baton Rouge as early as this summer, with expansion plans to tether thousands along the river over the next few years. A model from California's Leviathan Energy can operate in extremely low-flow, shallow areas of a river, and another can be mounted on the downspout connected to a large roof system.
"If you have a roof surface the size of a Walmart, and you have 60 inches of rain per year, on average, you could use these turbines to generate electricity as water runs down the downspouts," Meffert explains. "You might as well capture the energy anyway as long as it's flowing, pay for the technology in five years and offset your energy production. I love stuff like that because it's sort of a no-brainer for us to turn back to the Mississippi River as an economic advantage instead of something we take for granted or something we fear."
Meffert says hydrokinetics could provide an overwhelming economic advantage to New Orleans, with potential to create an energy-independent city through a "linear grid" of turbines lining the east and west banks of the river, reaching from Venice to Baton Rouge and beyond. Meffert explains that because the turbines wouldn't require damming up portions of the river, its flow would continue uninterrupted and could then house many of the several-meters-wide turbines along its banks.
"We have a billion liters of water on average running through our city every minute every day," he says. "We're basically not taking advantage of any of that for renewable energy. It's almost impossible to estimate the total potential for what hydrokinetics can do for generating dependable, clean, renewable energy in perpetuity for this city."
The next step, then, is for RiverSphere and Tulane University to develop its facility, including labs and a full-time campus. In 2003, RiverSphere secured a seven-and-a-half acre plot near the former site of the River City Casino, downstream from the Delta Queen. It was initially intended as a "riverfront campus," with facilities for research, performances and art exhibits, RiverSphere. Following the university's post-Katrina financial disruption, RiverSphere began exploring renewable energies — though Meffert says it wasn't a total shift in focus from its original plans.
"We always conceived RiverSphere as a place for research, education, public access — on the river, about the river, and for river communities." The site also would create flume labs, controllable "wet lab" environments which Meffert says have been providing a "growing amount of evidence" for what happens to sedimentation and river ecology when introduced to the turbines.
"We're pretty well versed in what one could expect in this part of the river," he says. "What we need to do is start putting these things in the river and just really understand this. Ten years from now you're going to see a whole different world in this type of energy."