Earn your keep, Mississippi

The Mississippi River may begin churning out electricity through 160,000 underwater turbines, if a Massachusetts-based start-up has its way. The company, Free Flow Power, wants to generate hydropower on the Mississippi seabed without disrupting shipping traffic or, they say, upsetting local ecosystems.

This is no Three Gorges. The company’s technology involves a permanent-magnet electric generator that can be installed in small clusters underwater, collecting power hydrokinetically rather than by building dams. Their vision is to install sets of six cylindrical turbines anchored to either pilings in the riverbed or attached to a structure such as a bridge. The flow of the river would spin the turbines to generate electricity in a low-impact way, they say, and the electricity would then be transmitted through the electric grid into Midwestern markets.

Free Flow Power has preliminary permits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to study 59 sites stretching from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico. Each site would consist of hundreds or thousands of turbines installed over several miles, at an estimated cost of $3 billion. As they are envisioned, the turbines together would generate 1600 megawatts, or enough to power 1.5 million homes.

The company now has three years to investigate the FERC-approved sites for technical and environmental challenges. If it all works out, they hope to be generating by 2012. The approach will not be as cheap as conventional hydropower, but the company’s chief executive expects to be able to sell electricity at competitive rates. Convincing local authorities that an economically uncertain project is worth the risk of reworking the Mississippi riverbed, however, will no doubt be a challenge.

We’ll need to see what balance is struck between clean electricity generation and the impact on the marine environment. After all, the Mississippi is no untouched frontier—more than 31,000 tons of freight were transported on the Mississippi through St. Louis in 2006. To a fish ten years in the future, will the Mississippi be a vastly different landscape?  


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