Tidal power turbines to generate a salty future for energy

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TWO separate accidents — one a mishap and the other, a major project gone awry — are playing major roles in shaping the development of tidal power in South Korea

Korea had planned to be the first nation to trial commercial-sized power generation from ocean currents, with the first of its pilot turbines in place at Uldolmok, in the country’s south-west by the second half of this year.

Researchers at the Korea Ocean Research and Development Institute (KORDI) chose the site because it has flows up to 12 knots, believed to be among the fastest in Asia.

“The purpose of the power plant is to do some experiments under the most severe conditions,” said Yum Ki-dai, president of KORDI.

But picking so exacting a location has its perils. In the operation to install the one-megawatt pilot plant, one of the two tug boats involved lost control. Borne along by the powerful current, the barge carrying the 1000-tonne rig rammed into a bridge, closing half of it for three months, and setting the project back at least a year.

The experiment was intended to study the structural stability and efficiency of helical turbines, which adjust automatically to the changes in tidal flows. Experiments in the use of such turbines are also under way in Australia, with the Government-backed EnGen Institute testing a unit that may be suitable for use in the Port Phillip Heads, near Point Nepean.

Unlike wind and solar energy, ocean currents are regular, offering the potential to supply base-load electricity.

William Hollier, director of Melbourne’s EnGen Institute, said while Korea offered a handful of sites suitable for ocean current power generation, Australia had many prospective locations, particularly in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

“There’s sufficient energy there to generate enough hydrogen to meet all our transport needs and to generate enough electricity for the entire nation,” Mr Hollier said.

The South Korean Government began researching tide and tidal current power in 2000, and researchers hope to have identified commercially viable technologies by 2010.

Along with the Uldolmok pilot project, KORDI is also trying to improve the efficiency of more conventional barrage-type tidal power plants. The leading project involves building a power plant with a capacity of 240-260 MW at the entrance to Lake Sihwa by 2009, with another of as much as 520 MW being considered for Garolim Bay, both on the country’s west coast.

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