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.
"Some industry estimates say the potential for lower-flow hydro energy could equal or exceed the existing energy production from hydropower from dams, while at the same time having a much less significant impact on the environment because you're not destroying and flooding entire ecosystems," said Meffert. "You're adding projects to river and tidal systems that already exist."
Water, water, everywhere but not nearly enough funding
The RiverSphere project, which is currently over 8.5 acres of empty riverside property, is a year behind schedule, said Meffert. While the project received a $3 million grant from the Economic Development Administration to construct the center, funding provided by the city of New Orleans under Mayor Ray Nagin was withdrawn last year. Meffert is now looking to fill that void with another source of non-federal funding before the foundations can be laid.
In May, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources passed legislation in support of the nascent hydro energy industry, allocating up to $75 million in funding for all tidal, wave, ocean thermal and river-based projects (ClimateWire, May 27). But although legislation has been passed, many companies and research facilities are still required to match federal investments with private funding.