London taps into the Thames for river power

The Thames joins a short list of rivers that are capturing their currents with hydrokinetic turbines.

The United Kingdom's coastlines have been a testing ground for tidal energy for years. This summer, Londoners are giving river power a go. Not too far from the World War II ship the HQS Wellington, a hydrokinetic device lies beneath the Thames' surface, generating electricity as currents push through its turbine blades.

During a two-month project, Nautricity is testing how their latest apparatus, called the CoRMaT (Contra-Rotating Marine Turbine), performs mechanically and effects the river's ecosystem. Positioned in arrays, the turbines are tethered to a buoy and an anchor rather than implanted into the riverbed. The largest arrays, according to Nautricity, can generate 500 kilowatts. If all goes well, the Scottish company hopes to place hundreds of the turbines in the river, from Westminster westward to the sea.

The British aren't the only ones dipping their toes into river currents as a renewable energy source. Projects in the United States have been gaining momentum recently as well. Three weeks ago, Free Flow Power began generating electricity with its jet-engine-looking device in the Mississippi . Between Louisiana and Kentucky, the Boston-based company has acquired permits for 25 sites for a total generating capacity of 3,303 megawatts. A section of New York City's East River has been flowing through what resemble six submerged wind turbines since 2006. By year's end, Verdant Power hopes to start installing 30 more. These turbines might even connect to the city's grid. (Currently, the RITE Project helps light up a handful of local businesses.)

Short transmission distances are an appealing benefit of these river power projects, especially when compared to larger energy projects offshore. Infrastructure costs would be lower, and when something goes wrong, fixing it would be a quicker, and likely cheaper, ordeal. That said, just how any of these pioneering devices will fare in strong, steady and corrosive currents remains murky.

Discussing the Mississippi River project, Jon Guidroz of Free Flow Power tells the Boston Globe:

There is absolutely a gold rush, and everyone is trying to build the shovels. There are around 40 companies worldwide [building hydrokinetic turbines]. Most are not in the US.

The US didn’t create wind power. The US didn’t create solar. This is a chance for the US to make a new industry.

London calling.

Related on Smartplanet:

Images: Flickr/Stuck in Customs, Flickr/dirac3000, Nautricity

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