Monday, October 22, 2012

Hydrokinetic Technologies - Tidal Energy

The tides rise and fall in eternal cycles. The waters of the oceans are in constant motion. We can use some of the ocean’s energy, but most of it is out of reach. The problem isn’t harnessing the energy as much as transporting it. Generating electricity in the middle of the ocean just doesn’t make sense -  there’s no one there to use it. We can only use the energy near shore, where people need it.

Tidal energy is the most promising source of ocean energy for today and the near future. Tides are changes in the level of the oceans caused by the rotation of the Earth and the gravitational pull of the moon and sun. Near shore water levels can vary up to 40 feet, depending on the season and local factors. Only about 20 locations have good inlets and a large enough tidal range—about 10 feet—to produce energy economically.

Tidal energy plants capture the energy in the changing tides. A low dam, called a barrage, is built across an inlet. The barrage has one-way gates (sluices) that allow the incoming flood tide to pass into the inlet. When the tide turns, the water flows out of the inlet through huge turbines built into the barrage, producing electricity. The oldest and largest tidal plant—La Rance in France—has been successfully producing electricity since 1966.

Tidal plants have very high development costs. It is very expensive and takes a long time to build the barrages, which can be several miles long. Also, tidal plants produce electricity less than half of the time. The seasons and cycles of the moon affect the level—and the energy—of the tides. The tides are very predictable, but not controllable.

On the other hand, the fuel is free and non-polluting, and the plants have very low operating costs. The plants should run for a hundred years with regularly scheduled maintenance.

Tidal power is a renewable energy source. The plants do affect the environment, though they produce no air pollution. During construction, there are major short-term changes to the ecology of the inlet. Once the plants go into operation, there can be long-term changes to water levels and currents. The plants in operation have reported no major environmental problems.

The United States has no tidal plants and only a few sites where tidal energy could be produced economically. France, England, Canada, and Russia have much more potential. The keys are to lower construction costs, increase output, and protect the environment.

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