R&D surge in hydrokinetics

7 July 2010

US federal science laboratories are helping to accelerate R&D in hydrokinetics. Report by Patrick Reynolds

Growing recognition of the strategic importance of marine and hydrokinetic technologies within hydro power has led the US Government to use funding programmes to draw in a number of federal science laboratories to help accelerate R&D in those sectors, while also supporting performance improvement in conventional hydro.

Marine hydrokinetics offers great potential but the industry is, for now, too small to have enough capital and resources to drive forward R&D at a rate and scale that would help meet the greater expectations being placed upon the huge resource and nascent technology.

As it is seen as capable of significantly supporting efforts to improve energy security and also increase the non-carbon share of the generation mix to help offset climate risks, the US Government has been providing funds through the Department of Energy (DoE) to help drive forward the R&D. The strategic objective has, in part, drawn upon the capabilities of national laboratories, and other organisations such as academic institutions, to amass more muscle to accelerate progress.

DoE research drive

Last year, in the third quarter – around when the first US commercial hydrokinetic project (Hydro Green Energy’s in-stream turbine in Minnesota) began operations – DoE announced a number of laboratory-led projects to be funded under its Advanced Water Power Projects initiative.

Competitive bids had been made under the programme, which aims to help push commercial viability, market acceptance and environmental performance of both new marine and hydrokinetic systems but also conventional hydro. Total funding from DoE for the projects is up to US$11M annually for three years.

The labs chosen to do the work by DoE include National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Earlier in 2009, through its Wind and Hydropower Technologies Program, DoE had released its marine and hydrokinetic technology database. Then, in September last year, following on from the engagement of the national labs, DoE then announced a further round of awards – 22 projects in five topic areas funded up to a total of US$14.6M. The topics cover grid services, university research, conversion devices or component design and development, site-specific environmental studies, and market studies including life-cycle cost analyses.

The push on marine and hydrokinetic technologies took off in 2008 following the Energy Independence and Security Act being signed in December 2007, through which DoE was authorised to accelerate development of wave, tidal and current-driven hydro power.

This year the momentum has continued with a report on the potential environmental effects of marine and hydrokinetic technologies, and another further funding round – for the Readiness Advancement Initiative. The initiative was launched to help further drive forward the marine and hydrokinetic technology sectors, and is focused on two areas: concept development; and, advancing part-developed systems.

Sandia’s role

Sandia won the most bids among the national laboratories awarded contracts under the DoE’s Advanced Water Power Projects – it is leading two of the four topic areas and providing technical support to a third topic.

In a statement, Jose Zayas, manager of Sandia’s Wind and Water Power Technologies group, said: ‘We will perform fundamental research to develop and assess technology breakthroughs and help promote a vibrant industry that is currently in its beginnings.’

The work, which began in January, sees water power research added to Zayas’ portfolio that was previously dedicated to wind power. Drawing upon resources from a range of departments within its organisation – such as materials and manufacturing, environmental monitoring and stewardship, performance modelling, and testing – Sandia is focused on marine hydrokinetic technologies.

Other laboratories looking at aspects of marine hydrokinetic technologies are Pacific Northwest, National Renewable Energy and Oak Ride laboratories.

Together, through an integrated approach, the partners will look at a range of technological design aspects, such as Sandia examining materials, coatings, adhesives and manufacturing. The aim is to improve both reliability and cost effectiveness of the components and assembled systems.

National Renewable Energy Laboratory is focused on mechanical engineering, machine performance, hydrodynamics, sediments, materials and system simulation.

In terms of output from the research, the projects will deliver their results into the public domain, says Zayas. Then, should private companies and researchers active in hydrokinetics conceive opportunities to take forward some aspects then they can do so with the aim of developing intellectual property, and possibly may be able to secure particular arrangements for technical support from the national laboratory network.

Oak Ridge is also collaborating with Sandia on research into performance improvement for conventional hydro power, as is Argonne National Laboratory. Overall, about 90% of the entire research work will be on marine hydrokinetics, leaving about 10% on conventional hydro studies, says Zayas.

Hydrokinetic R&D

The cost-effectiveness and reliability of marine hydrokinetic systems ranging from wave, current and tidal to thermal energy conversion are to be investigated by Sandia and partners. Sandia has a lake that has been used for large-scale wave testing and will have it evaluated for the water power research.

Rich Jepsen, Sandia’s water power technical lead, highlights two areas of research for marine hydrokinetics – cost of energy and water tunnel testing.

A representative set of reference models is to be developed to help establish the baseline cost of energy, and evaluate key cost reduction paths, for components or systems to be used in marine hydrokinetic technologies. The reference models are to consist of site characteristics and generic technology with a weighting towards simple, robust designs and tools for each market.

Jepsen says that the reference models could be used for benchmarking and comparing performance, loads and cost of new concepts and components. In addition, the models plus site data could be used for conservative benchmarks to help verify computational analyses.

For the water tunnel tests of devices and components, Sandia is to use facilities at Penn State’s Advanced Research Laboratory. Test data are to help benchmark current and future design codes as well as help with performance evaluation. The data measured are to include mean and fluctuating velocity, power generation, inception of cavitation, and acoustic output.

Environmental impact research

At the end of last year, DoE issued a baseline report on the environmental aspects of the existing and new technologies – “Report to Congress on Environmental Effects of Marine and Hydrokinetic Energy Technologies”, December 2009.

The report was called for under the Energy Independence and Security Act, and was produced by DoE in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Inputs were also drawn from other federal agencies. Based on information then available, the report described a number of potential environmental effects from the technologies and says there is no conclusive evidence there would be significant impacts. It highlighted areas for further research.

Sandia, Oak Ridge, Pacific Northwest and Argonne are working together on research into the environmental impacts associated with developing, deploying and operating existing, but also potentially new, marine and hydrokinetic technologies. The assessment work is to help reduce costs and save time.

The split of work will see Sandia concentrate on environmental hydrodynamics and sediment transport related to various technologies, while Oak Ridge and Argonne investigate their effects on aquatic habitat and ecological resources. Data to be gathered include rates of sediment transport, water flow, water quality and acoustic changes. The water tunnel tests at Penn State will also produce data such as acoustic output, which will be used to help study environment effects.

The data are to be further studied for any noted and verifiable general and specific biological responses to understand the type and size of impacts. Information gained from the research will help plan the location of projects as well as the development of monitoring systems and mitigation measures.

Sandia’s research effort is being led by Jesse Roberts, a specialist in sediment transport and hydrology.

Pacific Northwest is also performing environmental assessment of the marine hydrokinetic technologies, and the work will involve both lab experiments and field trials to help gather data on cumulative impacts from individual devices and arrays of generation units.

The national laboratories are working with a number of universities, such as Penn State, on the marine and hydrokinetic research projects. Zayas says the co-operation with the universities will also help to leverage its own world-class facilities for research to help faculty and students, providing them with opportunities to work on the new generation of hydro power technologies and challenges.

Sandia National Laboratory team Sandia National Laboratory team

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