The hidden power of New York’s East River

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A recent blog post in The New York Times (NYT) has profiled a team that is experimenting with an innovative way to produce electricity. And it poses an intriguing question off the top: Could cars in New York City someday run on electricity generated at the bottom of the East River?

Writer Patrick McGeehan spent some time with Trey Taylor. Taylor and his associates have been working to find ways to generate power from the East River. But the team must first build a better turbine … specifically, one that can withstand the river’s strong and shifting currents.

McGeehan reports that earlier this week, Taylor and his partners moved one step closer to their goal. A crane was hoisted on what looked like a “giant, hand-held electric fan” from the riverbed east of Roosevelt Island. The turbine had reportedly been bolted for 10 days to a piling drilled into the bedrock beneath the river.

McGeehan says Taylor’s company, Verdant Power, had positioned it there in the latest test of its long-running plan to turn the tides into a source of electricity.

Dean Corren, the company’s director of technology, told the NYT that this is the perfect testing ground. The current, which runs as fast as 2 meters per second, reportedly keeps the turbine blades spinning slowly, except during the lulls when the tide reverses its flow from north to south, or back again.

McGeehan describes the turbine as being a commercial prototype with a diameter of more than 16 feet. He writes that it did not generate any electricity during its brief period of submersion. A previous set of turbines in the river apparently powered a supermarket and an adjacent parking garage on the island.

Taylor says the problem with those machines, however, was that they kept breaking. So the company commissioned the manufacture of stronger blades, made of layered fiberglass and plastic, and tested them first in a lab in Golden, Colorado.

After 10 days in the river, the blades reportedly showed no obvious signs of wear or damage. McGeehan reports that the next step will be to start building more turbines and installing them in the river in sets of three. The rotors are made in Michigan, but the other parts will be made in New York State and assembled in New Jersey.

In about five years, the company hopes to have 30 turbines arrayed in the river, each capable of producing 35 kilowatts of electricity. All told, the project would produce about as much power as one wind turbine. That’s enough to power a few hundred homes.

Taylor told McGeehan there are talks to possibly use the river-generated electricity to power charging stations for electric cars on the island — making New York City the first city with tidal-powered cars.

But Verdant Power, which has raised about $33 million from investors, has a potentially more lucrative plan. McGeehan reports that it wants to sell its technology for use in rivers and even oceans around the world.