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Why New York City's third try with tidal power is good news for the U.S.

Posted by: Adam Aston on August 24, 2008

Good news. Verdant Power is set to restart its groundbreaking renewable energy project in New York’s East River. The news suggests that this and other cities are emerging as centers of green energy innovation.

In 2006, I wrote about Verdant Power’s efforts to build what look like underwater wind mills in New York’s East River. The idea is simple: as water flows, it spins the turbines, making electricity.

But it’s been hard going for the startup. The site has had to undergo years’ worth of costly, meticulous environmental evaluation. So far, no deal breakers — the fish have steered clear. The real problem has been too much of a good thing. The river currents are more powerful — and energy rich — than Verdant’s design engineers anticipated.

Here’s why. The East River is really a tidal channel. Unlike a river that flows at a slowish, steady pace in one direction, the current in the East River ebbs and flows, reversing direction twice a day, and peaking at speeds much higher than most rivers. The current has torn apart two pilot installations. The first set of blades failed; then, with stronger blades in place, the pivoting machinery gave out.

Starting tomorrow, the engineers who watch over the test site from a converted shipping container (parked outside a supermarket they hope to soon be regularly powering), will start installing their third, even-more-ruggedized batch of turbines.

I’m really rooting for them, and hope the third time is the charm. As Jim Dwyer points out in a nice update on the project’s progress at the New York Times, the city is blessed with currents and winds surrounding every boro. Centuries back these were harnessed as the source of power, using dams and windmills. (The city’s seal has a classic Dutch windmill in its center.) And as Mayor Bloomberg recently pointed out, these resources should be the first we tap as the city seeks to build new sources of electricity generation.

No, that’s doesn’t mean super-sized windmills on top of the Empire State Builging — aesthetic concerns aside, it’s too costly to retrofit such a dynamic heavy structure on most buildings. But it could be smaller, lighter windmills tucked in where conditions are good. Check Marquiss Wind, a California based maker of rootop turbines and Hanbana Lab’s workshops to build rooftop wind devices(here and here), a wonderful NYC non-profit working to boost awareness of green energy in the city by installing it, developing new approaches and educating the community.

And Bloomberg’s vision will surely mean innovative hydropower technologies, like Verdant’s, in our waterways. It means solar panels on every building’s roof. And it means turbines on Staten Island’s Fresh Kills Landfill and in the windswept Atlantic waters south off Brooklyn and Queens. In Amsterdam, windmills are a scenic feature of the view from shore. In the U.S. Cleveland and Hull, Mass. are moving ahead to proudly place windmills near shore to supply local power and brand their cities as green.

Skeptics may think it unlikely for a green revolution to happen here before say, San Francisco. But uniquely for a city of any size, New York has a rule that most of its electricity must be locally generated. This is a smart, responsible rule that will make it more likely green energy is built here. The rule keeps politicians and voters honest about taking responsibility for decisions — and environmental impacts — that in many other cities can be put far off and out of site.

This has a couple of effects that make New York fertile ground for experimenting with and building alternative energy. Here, power plants sit in, or near, residential neighborhoods. That makes building conventional coal or gas fired power plants expensive too, since they need vast parcels of land in a densely packed, costly city. If land is costly, rooftops are cheap, underused acres. Ditto for stretches of waterway near and far from the city.

To those who karp lots of incremental additions like solar panels don’t add up to much, keep in mind the grid doesn’t typically need huge new plants. Rather, it needs only to meet extra few percent points of additional demand that happen at peak times. For this role, solar is a perfect fit.

The second factor is one of political will, with big implications for the challenges facing the U.S. as a whole. Thomas Friedman has characterized the U.S.’s collective refusal to suffer near term sacrifice for long term benefit as “dumb as we wanna be”. That means consumers taking on absurd levels of debt, rather than saving for a house, and for banks to hustle that debt regardless of borrowers ability to pay.

In the power sector, it’s expressed as NIMBY-ism, “nothing in my backyard”, and BANANAs, “build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything” in the faith the power plants will be built somewhere else. And sure enough where it’s easier to build afar, that’s what happens. Building far away means voters can continue to put off processing the implications of these decisions, for their long term energy costs, the environment, and their children.

New York is showing signs that strong leadership can break this dumb habit. Since residents have a stake in what sort of power plants will be built here, there’s every reason they’ll see the logic in building green energy systems, per Bloomberg’s proposal, scattered all over the five boros.

After all, Verdant’s East River site sits directly across from one of the largest power plants in the city. Though its emissions are vastly improved in recent years, the apartment blocks just downwind of the plant has been known historically as “asthma alley”. Most of those folks, as well as other New Yorkers and Americans, would rather live in view of a turbine, or in the shadow of a solar panel than downwind of a smokestack.

Reader Comments

August 29, 2008 3:03 PM

well as a new yorker, I would rather be in shadows of solar panels for sure. This is a great initiative put forth by the mayor, and surely we are all rooting for a good outcome for Verdant. We need to make a shift and fast for ourselves, global warming aside- nobody wants to stand near or look at a smoke stack!

Adam Aston of BusinessWeek

September 2, 2008 12:28 PM

Quiet Revolution, with an £6 million investment from German green energy giant RWE, is building a factory in the UK to produce thousands or urban windmills within a few years. The turbines are of helical in shape, like strands of DNA, and are already spinning away on at sites owned by Sainsbury's, Marks & Spencer, Mercedes-Benz and Bovis. Check out more here: The company has already installed 30 turbines for clients including Sainsbury's, Marks & Spencer, Mercedes-Benz and Bovis">"German RWE Energy Innogy takes a tilt at welsh windmills," Times of the UK, Sept 2, 2008.


February 14, 2009 6:31 PM


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BusinessWeek correspondents John Carey and Mark Scott, cover the green scene, keeping on top of the business aspects of energy, the environment and climate change, as well as the technologies, policies, markets and people that are shaping how the earth's resources will be used in the century ahead.

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