East River Power

New Yorkers have been hearing rumblings that there’s a new alternative energy on the block: Tidal In-Stream Energy Conversion (TISEC), hydropower without big dams. Its promoters tell us that New York’s waterways are an ideal place to showcase the technology and to show-off New York’s ability to confirm large cities can indeed be engines of sustainability: It’s invisible! It’s predictable! It’s right next to the giant power load of the city! Its cheap (eventually)! Its skeptics tell us that it will alter the ecological balance of the river, or that it just can’t scale up to have an appreciable affect on our power production patterns.

We still don’t know how or when tidal power will move beyond research and development into grid-tied, commercial scale utility. We’re not sure when the unit price of electricity from tidal turbines will become cheaper than the cost of coal-generated power (a frequently used measure of economic feasibility of alternative energy sources). And that’s just the beginning of questions that remain to be answered: who will the developers and owners of the resource be? Will the government continue to grant rights to the boutique energy companies currently in operation to produce energy for the city of New York? Will major utilities or the city itself buy out or appropriate the resource out of claims of public necessity? Will tidal power turbines become order-on-demand, customizable device like solar PV cells for use in your factory or condo?

Architects, urbanists, and citizens who have opinions about the future of New York City need to get in on the conversation about how alternative energy sources such as tidal power could affect the future form of the city. The ways that design professions can interact with and inform tidal power generation begin with the most basic level of the form and installation of the turbines. They extend to how these turbines might interface with waterfront architecture or become architecture in their own right. How could buildings – and their designers – take advantage of tidal power as a decentralizing force in the power grid? How could buildings or other structures optimize the capture of power from the East River?

And beyond the technology itself, the potential of this energy source provokes another set of questions about how water fits into our image of the city. For much of our city’s history, our primary image of the water was the working harbor that connected New York to networks of freight, trade and industry. As the waterfront continues to deindustrialize, contrasting uses compete for a hold on our imagination: a wide, blue wilderness for maritime leisure; a horizontal vista in a vertical city to enjoy from high-end residential, waterfront property; an open field for a new system of water-based mass-transit to accommodate shifting development patterns. Tidal power introduces a new image: the site of a clean, green reindustrialization. What role will the water play in the future city – and how might tidal turbines spinning quietly under the water’s surface inform the design and understanding of our urban archipelago?

The illustrated slideshow above outlines the basic facts about tidal in-stream energy conversion (TISEC), posing questions about how design expertise – particularly in terms of the micro-scale of the turbines themselves and the macro-scale of urban waterways generally – can and should be brought to bear on this crucial discussion about renewable energy, the role the East River plays in New York City, and the relationship between environmentalism, ecology and urbanism.

Read a response to East River Power from waterfront planner Carter Craft.

Illustration: Michael Loverich
Research and production: Nick Buccelli
Additional Research: John Donalds

Visit the permitted tidal power companies operating in the East River:
Verdant Power
Natural Currents Energy Services
NY Tidal, subsidiary of Oceana Energy Company

General information about tidal power:
For a basic overview of tidal power, a good place to start is here.
The Electric Policy Research Institute (EPRI) has produced the most comprehensive set of reports about tidal power to date.

See coverage of tidal power in the press:
The New York Times has been covering East River tidal power operations. Start reading here.

Find out more about the permitting process for tidal power:
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) hydropower landing page

Browse the nautical chart for the Hell Gate area of the East River:
View NOAA chart here

Michael Loverich believes the Rococo died too young and that our need for carnal, witty and humorous environments must be satiated. With his firm Bittertang he hopes to resurrect the Rococo’s lost agendas and in the process create sensational new worlds and provocative forms of interaction.
Nick Buccelli is a designer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a former project associate of Urban Omnibus.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Ari Goldstein February 8, 2009

What a terrific piece – full of very educational yet concise content about the concept of tidal power in NY with great graphics.

Keith GVP February 14, 2009

Tidal engines or mills for New York’s waterways were conceived of in the 19th Century. It’s about time we got started.