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A deal between renewable energy pioneers and the state environmental agency will allow a landmark project harnessing power from the tidal waters of the East River to proceed. State demands for extensive testing prior to the launch of the project had come very close to scuttling it, the company sponsoring the project contends.

Verdant Power of Richmond, Va., plans to deploy the world’s first small field of underwater “windmills,” powered by the strong currents of the East River next to Roosevelt Island.

In January 2004, with a preliminary permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Verdant began the first phase of the project, a single turbine set on the river bottom. The test exceeded the company’s expectations in efficiency and power generation. “It was a confirmation that we had the right technology,” said Verdant President Trey Taylor.

With 30 percent of their funds—or approximately $1.5 million—coming from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), Verdant planned the second phase—a “six-pack” of turbines, which will provide power to the Gristedes supermarket on Roosevelt Island.

That phase was delayed following a request from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation for studies on how the turbines would affect the East River’s fish. Initially, the department requested an entire year of studies, at Verdant’s expense. The company said that such tests would have effectively killed the project. Under the new agreement, Verdant must conduct at least two months of studies to confirm that the turbine will not adversely affect the migration, reproduction and predator/prey interaction among the river’s 53 fish species.

Following a month for public comment and two months for the studies, the “six-pack” would be installed in stages beginning in April or May 2005. Verdant then plans to monitor the system for performance and environmental impact for 18 months. If the turbines have a negative effect on fish or water quality, they may be removed.

“The beauty of these systems is that they’re all reversible,” said Taylor. “It’s not like building a dam.”

If the second phase is a success, the project may move to its next stage, a field of 200 to 300 turbines. Navigational issues, energy storage and costs must be addressed, however, before the project can be considered commercially viable on a large scale.

Tom Collins, spokesperson for NYSERDA is optimistic. “The challenges we’re facing in this one can be overcome,” he said.

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