For all the nice (and not-so-nice) things people say about hydropower, the chances of building a new fleet of hydropower dams in the US are slim to none. However, there is still plenty of untapped renewable energy to be scoured from running water — and the US Department of Energy is determined to pry it loose with $38 million for a newly announced research program. The new announcement lends additional support to the prospects for deploying renewables as an economic recovery strategy in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
More & Better Renewable Energy From Water
As for where this mysterious new source of water-based renewable energy lies, that’s the easy part — and the hard part. It takes the form of ambient water flowing in rivers and tidal currents, aka hydrokinetic energy.
Estimates of hydrokinetic potential in the US vary considerably, but according to one analysis it is technically feasible to harvest up to 334 terawatt-hours annually (yes, that’s terawatts) from tidal streams in US waters, and another 120 terawatt-hours annually from river currents.
The problem is that hydrokinetic technology as it exists today is not quite ready for the mass market. Falling costs for wind and solar power have ramped up the competition in the renewable energy field, making it difficult for other alternatives to grab a toehold.
Nevertheless, the Energy Department is convinced that the nation’s future energy profile would be strengthened by a robust hydrokinetic sector.
For starters, hydrokinetic sites would dovetail with the nation’s population distribution, with large numbers of people and economic activity concentrated near riverbanks and coasts. Hydrokinetic devices could also help support microgrids in remote areas.
Riverine and tidal flows are also reliable and forecastable over long periods of time, which is a plus for grid planning. Even better, they have their own unique seasonal and daily variations, so they would complement rather than duplicate the output of wind and solar facilities.
The Energy Department is also eyeballing the technology export market. Aside from grid usage, they cite opportunities in the Blue Economy described by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The list of potential off-grid applications includes climatological observation, aquaculture, desalination, ocean floor and seawater mining, disaster recovery, powering isolated communities, and autonomous underwater vehicle support.
The SHARKS Are Circling Around Renewable Energy
So, how to get the ball rolling on hydrokinetic energy? Private sector research dollars aren’t exactly going to fall out of the sky, since the prospects for commercial development have yet to appear.
That’s where the Energy Department steps in. The agency’s ARPA-E high-risk, high-reward funding office aims at propelling transformational, disruptive energy research out of the lab and into the market. The hydrokinetic area is tailor made for this mission.
Technology acceleration is the name of the game for ARPA-E. While energy technology obviously changes over time, the learning curve can stretch for decades before a substantial transformation in economic activity occurs.
“ARPA-E supports transformative research that has the potential to create fundamentally new learning curves,” the Energy Department explains, adding that “ARPA-E funds technology with the potential to be disruptive in the marketplace.”
The agency has is throwing down $38 million on the new clean power initiative, so this is a pretty big deal.
The goal is to develop “radically new” designs that foster a 60% drop in the cost of hydrokinetic power.
ARPA-E is not just looking at any old baseline for that 60% drop, by the way. They mean a 60% drop compared to current state-of-the-art technology.
Wait, What’s Wrong With Existing Hydrokinetic Technology?
Today’s hydrokinetic technology has been limited by a piecemeal approach to design, as ARPA-E sees it.
In contrast, the SHARKS program is targeting a new, more holistic strategy. ARPA-E is looking for designs that take generation efficiency, area per unit of equivalent system mass, operating and maintenance costs, and environmental impacts all into consideration.
The office has additional expectations for qualifying projects, including a “drastic reduction” in installation and decommissioning costs. In that area, ARPA-E is expecting to see approaches that deploy autonomous technology, predictive maintenance, remote diagnostics and debris avoidance, among other measures that reduce the use of human hands.
On the environmental end, ARPA-E includes strategies to manage sediment transportation and noise along with minimizing collisions with aquatic life.
Life After COVID-19, Renewable Energy Edition
Energy Department support for hydrokinetic research is not a new thing. What’s particularly interesting about the SHARKS funding opportunity is that the Energy Department is pressing forward with an aggressive new phase in the R&D even while the US is still reeling from the COVID-19 economic and public health disaster.
The virus-induced chaos has opened up a window for fossil fuel stakeholders to reassert their grip on the global energy profile, but it seems that the Energy Department is still taking the long view on renewable energy.
Whether or not the current occupant of the Oval Office is on board (spoiler alert: not), it looks like the road to COVID-19 recovery will not be paved with coal, oil, or natural gas.
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Photo (screenshot): Marine and ocean energy via US Department of Energy.