NREL: 10 Significant Water Power Accomplishments From 2021

Over the last year, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) researchers worked hard to advance water power, a clean, carbon-pollution-free energy source. From surging oceans to rushing rivers, flowing waters are a constant and bountiful source of renewable energy. Today, NREL’s experts are studying water power to help modernize hydropower and guide marine energy—a younger form of energy generated from ocean and river waves, tides, currents, and temperature changes—from the lab to the water and, finally, to our homes.

“This critical work will help prepare water power, including the evolving U.S. hydropower fleet and burgeoning marine energy industry, to be the keystone of our renewable energy future,” said NREL Water Power Laboratory Program Manager Al LiVecchi. “Our researchers are enabling the country’s rivers and seas to satisfy key sustainable energy needs and become sources of low-cost, sustainable energy for the U.S. power grid, ocean industries, and coastal communities that increasingly depend on cleaner, more affordable power.”

Our water power researchers are upgrading marine energy technology, mapping the country’s vast water power resources, building the next generation of water power innovators, and helping design more productive, environmentally friendly hydropower. We are featuring 10 of this year’s projects, which represent just a few of the laboratory’s promising accomplishments from our world-class researchers.

Near the “City that Never Sleeps” (which, by implication, needs power all night long), a river has been providing a clean, sustainable way to keep things running. And this past year, the technology that currently harnesses tidal energy in New York City’s East River just got a bit more sustainable, thanks, in part, to a team of NREL researchers.

In October 2020, Verdant Power installed their novel tidal energy device in the East River. The so-called TriFrame mount submerges three turbines, each with three blades, like mini, underwater wind turbines, which spin and generate energy as tides rush in and out. During their first six months in the water, the tidal turbines generated almost 200 megawatt-hours of energy—enough to power about 250 homes per month and a U.S. record for marine energy production.

But in 2021, NREL’s novel turbine replaced Verdant Power’s to take a spin on their device. Most turbine blades are made from an epoxy, which, once set, cannot be melted down and recycled. But at NREL’s Composites Manufacturing Education and Technology Facility, researchers produced a new type of composite material that can harden when cooled and resoften when heated. Blades made from the new material, called thermoplastic resin, could be recycled or reused once their turn in the tidal device is complete.

In May 2021, the Verdant Power team replaced three epoxy turbine blades with NREL’s near-identical thermoplastic blades. After six months in the water, NREL researchers retrieved their blades, which had produced just as much energy as the original epoxy blades and showed no signs of structural damage. Next, the team plans to conduct further structural testing to quantify how well each blade type—thermoplastic and epoxy—performed. This data can help build confidence in this new, lower-cost, recyclable material and move the technology closer to commercial adoption.

Alaska’s Cook Inlet Could Power the Entire State With Renewable Energy

It climbs 25 feet up and down the shoreline. It surges at 9 miles per hour. And it could power 18 million homes. Capable of producing more than 20 times the energy needed in all road-connected communities in the state of Alaska, “it” is Alaska’s Cook Inlet. And NREL researchers have been working hard to understand the most effective way to harness this immense source of clean, renewable energy.

In 2021, an NREL team placed three data-gathering moorings in one of the most energetic parts of Cook Inlet. Over two months, the devices measured the water’s turbulence, velocity, salinity, temperature, and sediment composition to characterize the hostile conditions in which marine energy devices would need to operate and survive. There are plenty of ways the Inlet could damage or clog up machines, including fast-moving currents, sea ice, or turbulence that stirs up sand and silt into underwater sandstorms and dunes 30 feet high.

The data gathered in Cook Inlet will be released publicly so marine energy developers can better understand the site’s opportunities and challenges and build tidal turbines that can perform reliably for decades. Ultimately, this work could help the marine energy industry design turbine arrays that maximize power production while minimizing impacts to marine life and ecosystems.

Soon, Cook Inlet could power Alaskan homes and the state’s economy, too, turning the state into a marine energy powerhouse.

NREL Recruits and Inspires the Next Generation of Water Power Pioneers
Today, hydropower is getting a modern update, and marine energy is growing rapidly.

While novel technologies come with huge benefits, like environmental protections, more affordable energy, and increased renewable energy production, they need a modern workforce to maintain, operate, and enhance them. That is why NREL is helping to attract new minds and ideas and build the next generation of water power innovators.

In 2021, the laboratory ran several workforce development programs, including the:

Marine Energy Collegiate Competition: In just three years, NREL engaged about 480 undergraduate and graduate students who submitted novel solutions for challenges in the growing marine energy industry. Through the competition, those students, many of whom are affiliated with institutions serving historically underrepresented minorities, gained real-world experience and industry connections to help prepare them for careers in the marine energy sector and the blue economy (sustainable energy to power booming offshore industries).
Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Learning Portals: To inspire young students of all ages to get excited about the hydropower and marine energy industries, NREL offers two virtual learning portals. The STEM Hydropower Portal and STEM Marine Renewable Energy Portal provide students with information and tools, including workforce data and analysis and career and educational resources. Among the many resources added to the portals this year are two day-in-the-life videos that share stories from staff working in the water power industry, a marine energy animation that illustrates how the various technologies work, and a standards-based hydropower curriculum for high school students.
Clean Energy Education Outreach: NREL partnered with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation to develop a virtual clean energy education hub that could serve as a model for other clean energy education outreach programs at the K–12 levels and up through college. The program, which places special emphasis on reaching underserved communities, aims to promote equitable education through local engagement while creating awareness of and access to clean energy career options for future generations.
Through these interactive, hands-on career development resources, NREL is growing and inspiring the generation that could build a 100% carbon-free energy future.

New Report Could Help Reduce the Time and Cost To License Hydropower Projects
Since the late 1980s, hydropower developers have had to wade through more regulations than almost any other energy source. Those regulations are essential; they ensure fish can migrate and spawn, endangered species can keep valuable habitats, humans can kayak well-loved rivers, and cultural artifacts or burial grounds can remain undisturbed. But they can also hinder development, adding years and millions of dollars to projects that could help the country transition to carbon-free energy by 2035.

In 2021, a team of researchers from NREL and Oak Ridge National Laboratory set out to survey the current regulatory landscape and identify which protections, bureaucratic hoops, or developer designs might hinder hydropower projects from quickly earning a license to operate (like a governmental clean bill of health). Their findings, published in a report titled “An Examination of the Hydropower Licensing and Federal Authorization Process,” could help decision makers streamline the regulatory while maintaining critical protections—the best of both worlds.

To analyze the tangled regulatory web, the research team collected quantitative data—for example, how many years the licensing process takes on average—as well as qualitative data, sourcing licensing stories from a wide pool of regulators, developers, nongovernmental organizations, and tribal representatives.

While the report’s authors do not advocate for any specific regulatory changes, their analysis can guide decision makers to the stickiest areas where improvements can have the greatest impact. If regulators and developers can work together, hydropower could help save the planet faster.

Novel Simulation Software Earns the Country’s Most Prestigious Innovation Award
As any ocean-based movie, book, or experience will tell you, the ocean can be a volatile, unpredictable, and challenging place for humans and their technology to survive.

Now, a popular NREL tool, called the Wave Energy Converter Simulator (WEC-Sim), is helping make ocean movements a bit more predictable—for human technology, at least. The tool, which earned a prestigious 2021 R&D 100 Award from R&D World magazine, is the first open-source code that can simulate how objects move in ocean waves. Such simulation software is critical for wave energy developers; learning how their devices might perform at sea can enable them to make necessary changes in their virtual, theoretical models before performing costly and time-consuming validation in wave tanks and offshore.

Today, hundreds of different wave energy prototypes are vying for commercial success. The WEC-Sim code can analyze almost all of them. But the technology can assist far more than just the marine energy industry. Recently, NASA used it to assess how a space flight’s crew module might move after it splashes down in the Pacific Ocean. If an object can float, chances are WEC-Sim can evaluate how waves might toss it around.

But for the young and growing marine energy industry, WEC-Sim is especially useful. Allowing wave energy developers to simulate their device’s dynamics and performance can dramatically reduce the uncertainty around how they will perform in actual marine environments. That, in turn, can lower the costs and reduce the R&D timeline to move these promising devices from concept to the ocean.

NREL Researchers Help Prepare Hydropower To Support an Evolving Power Grid
North American continent at night
The multiyear North American Renewable Integration Study found that multiple combinations of electricity generation, transmission, and demand can reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. Data visualization by NREL
In 2021, the United States’ energy grid received a C-minus grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers. The main problem? It is old. The older the technology gets, the less reliable it becomes.

But there is more. The grid is vulnerable to harsh weather, like hurricanes, ice, and extreme heat, as well as both cyberattacks and physical attacks. And it was built to serve mostly fossil fuel sources and not remote wind farms or offshore energy. As the nation adds more renewable energy sources to the grid, how will this aged beast handle the change?

That is what NREL researchers are working to find out, focusing specifically on how hydropower can help ease the power grid’s evolution. A reliable and flexible source of renewable energy, hydropower is already helping the grid accommodate more variable forms of renewable energy, like wind energy and solar power.

In 2021, NREL published the North American Renewable Integration Study, which evaluated four different future scenarios for the North American power grid, assessing how various renewable technologies could improve the cost, carbon emissions, and reliability of the power grid. The study identified some combinations that could result in an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050.

NREL researchers also evaluated a specific type of hydropower—pumped storage hydropower—which could provide a critical service for a grid that relies more on renewable energy. Solar power and wind energy are growing faster than ever, but these sources can only produce energy when the sun shines or winds blow. Often, their energy production exceeds demand, but there are few reliable ways to store this energy for days or months. Pumped storage hydropower can. Like big batteries, these facilities can efficiently store renewable energy for long periods of time and send that energy back into the grid during periods of high demand and low energy production.

In 2021, NREL analyzed a new, more environmentally friendly kind of pumped storage hydropower, called closed-loop hydropower. This work could help optimize both existing and new hydropower facilities by lowering costs, shortening development timelines, and reducing hydropower’s environmental footprint.

In time, NREL’s analyses could help build a more resilient, reliable, flexible, and carbon-emission-free energy grid and help change that C-minus to an A.

Novel Marine Energy Tools Evaluate Energy Resources and Technology

Before marine energy devices set sail, their developers must answer two huge, complex questions: Where to deploy and how to prepare for that site’s specific environment. The United States has 3.4 million square nautical miles of water—a larger area than the combined land mass of all 50 states. But do not worry. NREL researchers can help identify promising sites, determine which devices suit those sites, and reduce the uncertainty, time, and cost before they head to the water.

To help answer the first question—where to deploy—NREL researchers developed the Marine Energy Atlas, a publicly available, interactive map built on data collected with buoys placed all over U.S. waters. Users can zoom in on specific areas to explore what wave, tidal, riverine current, ocean current, and ocean thermal resources exist there. And in 2021, the atlas got an upgrade. Users can now search a new data library and explore new data layers (like wave models for Pacific, Atlantic, and Hawaiian regions) along with a higher-resolution map.

To learn how much energy their device might produce at a specific site, developers can use another NREL tool, the System Advisor Model, nicknamed SAM. As of 2021, the SAM Marine Energy Module can communicate with the Marine Energy Atlas, allowing users to conduct performance and economic modeling for marine energy systems at thousands of sites in the United States.

Designers can also collate and analyze massive amounts of information with one more NREL tool, the Marine and Hydrokinetic Toolkit. This open-source platform provides tools and resources that can perform rapid data analysis to reduce the uncertainty, cost, and time needed to design and test viable marine energy devices. These three NREL tools could help accelerate the development and deployment of marine energy technology, which could eventually deliver clean water power to U.S. coastal and island communities and offshore industries.

Marine Energy Prizes Speed Development of Novel Wave Energy Technology
A buoy floats in the ocean near the shore
In 2021, NREL ran two marine energy prizes: the Ocean Observing Prize and the Waves to Water Prize.
Today, marine energy devices come in many shapes and sizes. Because the industry is still growing, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Water Power Technologies Office uses a unique funding mechanism—prizes—to empower a variety of innovators to rapidly develop new marine energy prototypes that can address specific challenges, like disaster recovery and ocean monitoring.

In 2021, NREL administered two marine energy prizes: the Ocean Observing Prize and Waves to Water Prize. Both prizes are part of the Powering the Blue Economy initiative, which seeks to understand the power requirements of emerging coastal and maritime markets and advance technologies that could allow marine renewable energy to relieve these power constraints and enable sustainable growth of the blue economy.

The Ocean Observing Prize, managed by NREL and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, challenges innovators to integrate marine renewable energy with ocean observation platforms, ultimately revolutionizing our ability to collect the data needed to understand, map, and monitor the ocean. More than 80% of the ocean is unexplored. And as the planet warms, destructive tropical storms could become more common. Accurate data and forecasting could better protect coastal communities from the disastrous impacts of oncoming storms.

In 2021, NREL announced the winners of the Ocean Observing Prize’s second competition, DEVELOP, which focused on a single theme: hurricane monitoring. During this phase, contestants began to develop their ideas from the first competition, DISCOVER, into functioning, wave-energy-powered autonomous underwater vehicle prototypes. Six winners are now manufacturing their prototype for testing. Together, the DISCOVER and DEVELOP competitions award prizes of up to $3 million in cash and other in-kind awards.

In the Waves to Water Prize, teams compete to design small, modular, cost-competitive desalination systems that can turn seawater into clean drinking water using renewable energy from ocean waves. Such technologies could deliver clean water for disaster relief purposes and to remote communities around the globe.

In 2021, NREL administered the third and fourth of five stages, ADAPT and CREATE. During the ADAPT Stage, teams tweaked their designs for ocean testing; in the CREATE Stage, the 10 winning ADAPT Stage teams manufactured functional prototypes. Next, the five CREATE Stage winners will compete in the final DRINK Stage in 2022, during which teams will see how well their devices perform in the shallow waters off the coast of North Carolina. To ensure each of the variable designs is judged fairly, NREL researchers prepared their own wave-energy-powered desalination device, which they will use to de-risk the deployment of each of the competing devices.

Both prizes will continue into 2022.

Hydropower Prizes Help Plants Lower Costs and Environmental Impacts and Increase Energy Production
A rainbow in front of a dam
After more than a century, hydropower is still one of the most dominant sources of renewable energy, accounting for about 37% of all U.S. renewable electricity production. But the technology can be better. And hydropower prizes can help.

Funded by DOE’s Water Power Technologies Office and administered by NREL, four hydropower prizes gave teams a chance to submit innovative ideas and compete for prize winnings. Each prize focused on designing solutions for a specific challenge to reduce the cost, time, and environmental impacts of developing new and modernizing old hydropower projects. They were the:

FAST Commissioning for Pumped Storage Hydropower Prize: This prize aimed to accelerate the development and installation of new pumped storage hydropower facilities, which can both store and generate large amounts of renewable energy. In 2019, four grand prize winners earned $550,000. In 2020 and 2021, those winners worked with NREL experts to turn their ideas for reducing the costs and risks of pumped storage hydropower into reality.
Fish Protection Prize: Fish and hydropower do not always get along. Fish can swim into pipes and dam intakes or get separated from their natural ecosystems. Through this prize, teams identified solutions, including installing sensory deterrents (like air bubbles or flashing lights) or barriers, to help protect fish and their habitats. In 2021, three winners of the prize’s final PITCH CONTEST worked to bring their technologies closer to commercialization.
Groundbreaking Hydro Prize: New hydropower construction requires a foundation, which must be secure, safe, and as minimally invasive as possible. The major goals of this prize were to reduce construction costs, shorten installation times, and minimize ground excavation and ecosystem disturbances associated with new hydropower development. In 2021, NREL announced the two winning teams, who shared a $75,000 prize.
I AM Hydro Prize: New, modern materials and manufacturing methods can enhance hydropower projects by reducing construction costs and repairs and improving energy production. But it is not always clear which materials and methods are optimal for improvements. This prize encouraged the national hydropower and American manufacturing communities to propose advanced manufacturing solutions for hydropower and compete for a prize pool of $175,000. In December 2020, NREL announced the 11 winning teams.
To help plan future hydropower prizes, NREL also recently collected ideas from hydropower stakeholders to help refine future prizes.

The first of its kind, the Inclusive Energy Innovation Prize seeks to mitigate climate change and promote energy justice at the same time. Graphic by NREL
In 2021, DOE launched a new prize. The Inclusive Energy Innovation Prize is administered by NREL and supports the Biden administration’s Justice40 initiative goal to put environmental and economic justice at the center of the United States’ transition to a net-zero economy by 2050.

The new Inclusive Energy Innovation Prize will award up to $2.5 million to as many as 10 organizations for ongoing and/or proposed activities related to the climate and clean energy that support, build trust, and strengthen relationships and partnerships with disadvantaged communities. Through the prize, DOE aims to support, create, and identify activities that provide incubation, acceleration, and community-based entrepreneurship and innovation services in climate and clean energy technologies.

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