Scientists, engineers and government officials are attempting to harness the power in flowing water
For Douglas Meffert, those attempting to harness the water power of the Mississippi River aren’t just scientists and engineers; they’re visionaries who could transform the way power grids operate in the Southeast, and perhaps other areas of the United States.
Meffert, a professor of bioenvironmental research at Tulane University, said that with his work, he’s carrying on the mission of the late professor William Mouton, a revered New Orleans structural engineer, to end the southeastern United States’ reliance on fossil-fuel energy from the Gulf of Mexico. The trick will be to perfect hydrokinetic energy — a renewable energy source generated by underwater turbines set in motion by the flow of rivers, ocean currents, waves or tides.
“Think about the Mississippi River Basin as a large energy grid,” said Meffert. “Now we’re depending on [power] plants to bring energy into [the] region, but instead we could think of the water systems in our region as the grid itself.”
Meffert’s long-term vision is to turn the region from a consumer of fossil fuels into a producer of renewable energy and, one day, an exporter of that energy. He has started on this path as the director of RiverSphere, a Tulane University research center that will study the environmental and technical features of river turbines.
But there are a number of challenges that Meffert’s work, and every other hydrokinetic project in the country, must overcome before this becomes a viable source of energy. Funding is scarce, turbines keep breaking and projects may be putting ecosystems at risk. Meanwhile, competition from other countries and the need for more clean, domestically produced energy keep rising.
There are also the long-term concerns about how this type of hydro energy would cope with droughts, flooding or more extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change.
These issues are what Meffert and his team, but also researchers at a number of private companies, are hoping to solve. If they are successful, U.S.-made hydrokinetic projects could be providing a stable source of energy from rivers, channels and oceans around the country and the world.
The nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute, whose members represent 90 percent of the nation’s utilities, has estimated that in the United States alone, new hydrokinetic technologies could provide an increase in generation capacity of 3,000 megawatts by 2025. Another study found hydrokinetic energy could supply 10 percent of America’s electricity needs.
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