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Harnessing the Energy of the East River

This summer, three state-of-the-art turbines will be lowered into the East River, off the east shore of Roosevelt Island. Their purpose: to generate electricity from river currents, and to show New York City, and the world, the potential of tidal power. These are fifth generation turbines in the Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy project (RITE), an initiative of Verdant Power. By the completion of the RITE project in the East River, there may be as many as 30 turbines stretching across a third of the channel toward Queens.

In 2005, when Verdant Power first sought permission from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to test turbines off Roosevelt Island, there were no U.S. regulatory processes for this type of marine energy technology. Eventually, Verdant received FERC approval for the world’s first demonstration of tidal turbines and the company began to gather data to apply for a larger system and commercial permit at the same site. In 2012, Verdant received the country’s first commercial license for a tidal power project, to install up to one megawatt of power off Roosevelt Island. And this summer, this next phase of the RITE project is set in motion.

For more than 15 years, Verdant team has been working on reliable and affordable marine energy technology. “We would have been here sooner had the 2008 recession not hit,” said Trey Taylor, Verdant co-founder and chief commercial officer. “That slowed us down. But it didn’t stop us. Much of it has to do with the esprit de corps of the team. Everybody focused on the big picture.”

The last time RITE made headlines was in 2007, when Mayor Bloomberg set the previous generation of turbines spinning. The new RITE turbines were to be installed May 13, 2020, but, as with many other programs and decisions, the installation is postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We know the timing of the tides,” Mr. Taylor said. “We can depend on the reliability of the water currents, unlike solar energy or wind energy. We are converting hydro kinetic energy to mechanical power and then to electrical power. The basic physics has to do with the sweep of the blade and the strength of the current. One thing we learned is you should aim to convert 15% of the energy to power and then allow the current to restore to full speed again. This affects spacing from side to side and fore and aft when we’re offsetting each turbine.”

The east channel of the East River is the shallower side. Most vessels navigate the west channel that separates Roosevelt Island from Manhattan. If small boats traverse the east channel, they will pass above the turbines, which will be placed in a depth of nine meters at low tide.

What accommodations is Verdant making for marine life? “These aren’t propeller blades, they’re rotors. They turn very slowly,” Mr. Taylor said, explaining that blades are five meters in diameter and turn at 35-40 rpms. “If fish were to swim toward the rotor, they will feel pressure and dart away. The fastest part of the rotor is the tip. We calculated that the likelihood of a fish getting hit by the tip of the rotor is .05 percent.”

When the previous turbines starting turning in 2007, they generated electricity to power the local Gristedes and parking garage. This summer, when the new RITE turbines start producing energy, the project will become a much larger demonstration center, and Mr. Taylor and the Verdant team are dreaming big—hybrid solar and wind systems connected to hydro-power; perhaps eventually Roosevelt Island even powered by its own micro-grid! The team is imagining all kinds of uses for the energy generated by the East River currents. For example, remember that parking garage on Roosevelt Island? “You could have outlets for electric vehicles charged by tidal power!” said Mr. Taylor, just getting warmed up. “It’ll be fun PR.”

“The beauty of what we’re doing at Roosevelt Island is that we’re doing it in front of the United Nations,” Mr. Taylor said, mentioning Istanbul, Ireland, and the Philippines as examples of potential Verdant Power hydro-energy projects around the world. “This is about building sustainable communities in the face of climate crisis.”

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