Lunar power in the Big Apple

Roosevelt Island in New York City's East River may one day become the world's first lunar-powered community, thanks to free-flowing, water-to-wire kinetic hydro-power technology developed by Verdant Power.


The company’s founders hope to see the turbines they’ve created to harness tidal power someday be available to other communities near similar tidally-driven and free-flowing waterways around the globe.

Verdant was incorporated in 2000 by a group of entrepreneurs looking to develop commercially available, environmentally benign systems using flowing water that would provide clean, renewable energy globally, one village at a time.

Although hydroelectric turbines in rivers harnessed by dams have been used to create electricity for decades, Verdant’s objective was to design new systems that wouldn’t interfere with the water conveyance. “At the same time, as long as there’s moving water, we can convert that energy to electricity,” explained President Trey Taylor, who created Verdant seven years ago with CEO Ronald Smith and CFO Kevin Lynch.

The beauty of tidal power is that, unlike wind, it’s as predictable as the moon that drives it. The turbines that are turned by tidal currents are submerged, so they provide energy invisibly and soundlessly, he said.

Bruce Becker, whose company developed the recently completed, very green Octagon apartments on Roosevelt Island, looks forward to the day he can plug his community into the power generated by the field of turbines Verdant plans to install on the bed of the river that flows around the island.

But, Becker and the rest of the world will have to wait until testing of the underwater turbines is complete and the Verdant team has analyzed and incorporated into the system’s design what they learn from operating the six axial-flow turbines the company currently is planting on the bottom of the East River’s east channel.

The installation of the six five-meter, propeller-shaped, three- bladed turbines is the second phase of a three-phase pilot project that started five years ago.

The first test involved a turbine-barge combo that Taylor called a “turbine evaluation vessel,” when it was launched to collect information about water velocity and potential installed capacity of the system that is the first of its kind in the world.

The UK-based Marine Current Turbines, followed shortly on the heels of Verdant’s first launch with the installation of a single 300 KW unit — far larger than the 35 KW Verdant turbines. The British company’s system on the Devonshire coast, is not submerged. It moves up and down on a huge monopile at the shoreline.

“So, here’s where all the firsts come in: We’re the first to be putting in a field of turbines under water. We have a fixed-pitch rotor, where theirs is a variable-pitched rotor, which means they adjust the angle of their blade designs,” Taylor explained, adding that the fixed-pitch rotor has fewer moving parts. “Because salt water is very corrosive, the more moving parts you have, the more parts can get jammed up.”

“And we’re actually producing power and delivering to customers and that’s another world’s first,” said Taylor, referring to the electricity the project is providing, which is enough power for half the needs of the Gristedes Supermarket and municipal parking lot on Roosevelt Island. The system is easily deployed and close to the end users, eliminating the need for transmission grids, altogether.

“There’s a big picture in play here,” Taylor said. “It’s a disruptive technology approach to electric power production that uses the idea of decentralized power and micro-grids, moving away from big central power and transmission. He said that Verdant’s economic model is disruptive to the traditional model because it creates local power, using local, clean, indigenous, renewable resources.

“Once you start producing clean power from indigenous resources, that’s empowering. You can open up shops or factories or you can create business on the Internet and have distant learning and tele- medicine. I love microeconomics,” he said, adding that Verdant isn’t just creating new technology, it’s creating an opportunity for economic stability even in the most isolated of communities.

Over the next 10 to 15 years, Verdant hopes to develop 40 to 50 projects, from one megawatt to 50 megawatts, throughout the world. But right now, the company is concentrating on Roosevelt Island.

“Our whole focus right now is on the East River and the idea that we can have a great hand in turning Roosevelt Island — this community of 10,000 people that’s sandwiched between Manhattan and Queens — into a sustainable community and use that as a showcase for the rest of the world. After all, it’s just down the river from the UN,” Taylor said.

Verdant has backing from local and regional agencies to help achieve that goal. The company was funded originally from the partners’ own pockets and those of family and friends, followed by angel investors that helped them keep afloat. Last August Verdant received its first infusion of institutional funding from the Boston-based Tudor Investment Group that committed to $15 million of financing in two tranches. The first $7.5 million has come through and Taylor expects to go back to that well for the second half within the next eight or nine months.

And the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), which Verdant considers a partner in the project, has contributed around $2.5 million to the Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy Project (RITE) to date, or about 35 percent of the funding for the project, which now is in its power production testing and fish monitoring phase. The testing also looks at navigation and security issues. “The beauty of modular systems is they can be arrayed in all kinds of configurations so that we can stay away from navigational channels and security zones,” Taylor said.

The final field probably will be a patchwork of turbine pods generating as close to 10 megawatts of power as possible. It takes around one kilowatt to power one household for a year, so 10 megawatts may be enough to power all of Roosevelt Island.

The project also has the enthusiastic support of island residents, thanks to the community involvement Taylor and his colleagues have fostered from the outset.

A testament to that support, he said, came when the New York State Department of Energy Conservation was dragging its bureaucratic feet on the permit for the six-turbine array and the president of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association and editor of the local newspaper told Taylor, “You just give us the word and we’re going to Albany on buses to get that permit for you. We want this power project in our backyard.”

“You hear nimbyism all the time about wind projects and other power projects. That’s what’s so refreshing about this. That’s a real nice twist,” Taylor said.

The Verdant team is talking to communities throughout New York about building sustainable villages that use the renewable resource of moving water for power. “New York City is nothing more than an amalgam of villages, like most communities. If we can build a sustainable village in New York, the same could be true for a sustainable village in the Amazon Basin,” said the global energy visionary.