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Capturing More Clean Energy from the Niagara River

Last month, a CNBC report documented the installation of three power turbines in New York City’s East River.  Currently a precommercial “technology demonstration” project by developer Verdant Power, the project is testing prototypes that are planned to be used to extract kinetic energy from tidal sources (the East River is technically a tidal strait separating Queens from the Bronx and Manhattan).  This promises to be a game changer throughout the world as third world countries electrify and first world countries move to 21st century forms of clean energy.

We call it the Niagara River, but it is also a strait connecting two larger bodies of water (Lakes Erie and Ontario).  This got me thinking.  It already powers a large area of North America, with waters diverted before reaching the Falls, powering the Robert Moses Niagara Hydroelectric Power Station in Lewiston, NY and the Sir Adam Beck Niagara Generating Stations in Queenston, ON.  Diverting more water from Niagara Falls for additional power generation is not an option due to international treaty agreements.  But, with the advances in water turbine technology developed to harness energy, the possibility is there to use the speedy currents of the Niagara River before or after it reaches the Falls.

Unlike other renewable energy sources, turbines in rivers create a base load supply for the grid since the flow of the water is relatively constant.   Because it is powered by kinetic energy instead of potential energy, no dams or differential in water levels are necessary for the operation of these devices.  Adding turbines to the Niagara River would be allowed by treaty as the course of a river remains in its natural state.  Investments in infrastructure are minimal.  Turbines are designed to minimize visual and audible disturbances with limited environmental impacts to fish and other wildlife.

The flow of the water in the East River project is averages about 5 mph.  The speed of the Niagara River ranges from 1.5 mph in the upper river to 25 mph in the rapids above the Falls.  So, if the flow is strong enough to create a marketable energy return in the East River, we should be able to do the same in the Niagara River.  This would be a project, like that in the East River, that the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority should be interested in to provide research funds for new and emerging technologies. 

Do we have any engineering students at the University at Buffalo that would take on the challenge of creating an energy system that could be used to harness more of the power of the mighty Niagara?   

Buffalo Rising addendum:

It is interesting to note that back in 2008, Buffalo Rising posted on three applications that had been submitted for turbines on the Upper and Lower Niagara River.

In response to the applications, and whatever happened to them, Szalasny, Sierra Club Niagara Group Executive Committee Member said, “I would assume 2008 happened to the project. The Great Recession took government money out of many shovel ready projects that all went into bailing out the auto industry in 2009.  We probably wouldn’t be fighting over wind turbines in Lake Erie right now without the recession.”

Maybe it’s time to revisit this strategy?

Written by John Szalasny

John Szalasny

John Szalasny is someone who cares about our planet. Born too late to join in on the first wave of organized environmental action in the 60’s, I’m making up for lost time as I get nearer to retirement on various environmental concerns including the plastic waste crisis.

View All Articles by John Szalasny
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