Alaska Captures Clean Energy in Rivers

River hydrokinetic energy has great potential, but it is still very much in the developmental stage. Alaska is taking steps that will speed the commercialization of the technology in that state and nationwide.

The term “hydrokinetic energy” refers to the production of electricity from water in motion — river flows, tidal currents, and ocean waves. An immersed turbine or similar device converts the energy of the moving water into electricity. The hydrokinetic energy resource is free as well as usually dependable and predictable. In addition, the process emits no greenhouse gases.

The Alaska Center for Energy and Power (ACEP) at the University of Alaska has become a key location for research and industry support for hydrokinetic energy. The Alaska Energy Authority works with ACEP to focus on various technologies that can lower the cost of energy while developing economic opportunities. ACEP Director Gwen Holdmann appreciates the benefits of partnering with the state: “A long history of collaboration has helped us maintain a diversified funding base, ensuring the program’s sustainability.”

Alaska has approximately 40 percent of all the river energy in the United States, so ACEP created the Alaska Hydrokinetic Energy Research Center and is paying considerable attention to hydrokinetics. Research is underway at the research center’s test site on the Tanana River to determine whether river hydrokinetics is an economically feasible and environmentally sustainable energy source. Some of the hurdles are engineering issues, such as coping with debris both on and under the river surface and mitigating equipment damage from sediment and ice. Other challenges are environmental — notably, evaluating the impacts on river hydrology and plant and animal species.

Researchers and company representatives from across the U.S. regularly visit the Tanana site, bringing new technology application ideas and hardware to test. The site offers important time-saving and cost-saving advantages, because all the necessary permits required for river testing are already in place. The companies do not need to go through the cumbersome process of acquiring permits before they can begin testing. And all the monitoring equipment is in place so that companies can easily “plug and play.” Moreover, as Research Professor Jeremy Kasper notes, if “technology works well in the Tanana, it will most likely succeed in other areas around the state. Most rivers in the lower 48 will likely be easier to work in since water levels tend to fluctuate less on dammed rivers.”

Holdmann thinks of ACEP as “an honest broker of information; someone to work on the issues industry might not even be thinking of today. We are working on figuring out how to make hydrokinetics work in real-world applications, and we would be very happy to be a resource to other states as they consider hydrokinetic energy.”

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This blog post was written by Georgena Terry and Warren Leon, and was originally published in the Clean Energy States Alliance (CESA)’s 2015 report “Clean Energy Champions: The Importance of State Policies and Programs.” This report provides the first-ever comprehensive look at the ways states are advancing clean energy and suggests how to further encourage clean energy growth. For more information about CESA, please visit www.cesa.org.

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Warren Leon is Executive Director of the Clean Energy States Alliance. He oversees the organization’s day-to-day operations and leads strategy development. He has written and edited many reports for CESA, including serving as lead author for  Returning Champions: State Clean Energy Leadership Since 2015  and  Solar with Justice: Strategies for Powering Up Under-Resourced Communities and Growing an Inclusive Solar Market . Prior to working for CESA, Warren was Director of the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust, Executive Director of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association, and Deputy Director for Programs at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He co-authored the influential book  The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices . He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University.

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