"It's a challenge to raise that non-federal match because the economic return on that investment isn't in the three- to five-year range; it's in the five- to 20-year range," said Meffert. In the meantime, up to 50 research jobs and potentially hundreds of manufacturing jobs are on hold while the RiverSphere project waits for additional backing.
Managers at Free Flow Power (FFP), a renewable energy company focused on hydropower, are all too familiar with this problem.
The company commissioned its first full-scale hydrokinetic device in the Mississippi River on June 20 and has been successfully operating the turbine off a pontoon at a Dow Chemical plant in Plaquemine, La. But the pilot project isn't actually powering anything; rather, it's allowing researchers to monitor how the turbine is responding to the river environment.
Jon Guidroz, FFP's director of project development, said that since the experiment is performing above expectations, it should validate the company's application for additional funding. The project is already funded in part by the Department of Energy's Advanced Water Power Technologies program. Another DOE-funded venture, and FFP's ultimate goal, is to install turbines on the river floor.
After four years of preparation, Guidroz says FFP should be ready to achieve full-scale installation by the end of 2013, but that the deadline is contingent on its ability to jump through all the regulatory hoops.
Waiting to take the plunge
FFP has already applied for dozens of licenses, and must now renew 60 of them that have met the three-year expiration date. The company has an additional 45 preliminary permits pending before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). But, like all other American hydrokinetic companies, none of its commercial license applications has been fully approved.
Before issuing a license, FERC has required that FFP complete 11 studies. Some of them will look at the impacts turbines have on aquatic life, navigation, acoustic sounds, archaeology and aquatic vegetation.
The legacy of traditional hydropower projects, specifically large-scale dams, has made the regulatory system for all hydropower projects immensely thorough. To launch a hydrokinetic project, companies have to get approval from FERC, U.S. EPA, DOE, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Bureaucratic speed bumps have spurred FERC to start streamlining the process for hydrokinetic projects, said Meffert. But he was quick to note that "wind energy and solar never had to go through this."
As a director at a company operating on the Mississippi River, which many feel is a largely untapped renewable resource, Guidroz shares Meffert's frustration over the delays. But he's also confident that there will soon be progress.
"You have a large population density and large consumers of electricity going right down the middle of U.S., where you don't have much wind energy or solar concentration but you have a great hydrokinetic resource," said Guidrioz. "I think we're looking at an inevitable opportunity to commercialize."
Beyond the Mississippi Basin, other companies are making headway in the regulatory process and could see turbines come online as early as next year.
Verdant Power's Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy (RITE) Project is among the leaders in the implementation of hydrokinetic systems. According to its website, the RITE Project stands as the "the world's first grid-connected array of tidal turbines." Unlike river turbines, this project harnesses the ebbs and flows of New York's East River, which is actually a tidal strait.
While designing underwater turbines is complicated in any conditions, the ocean adds the elements of strong currents and corrosion from the saltwater. Plus, there are concerns over the safety of endangered marine life, such as the killer whale population that hydrokinetic companies have had to worry about off the coast of Washington state.