MRC hears turbine, Audubon reports

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 2, 2009

Usually a technical update on flood control and water projects up and down the Mississippi River system, this year’s high-water inspection trip took a green turn when the Mississippi River Commission met in Vicksburg on Wednesday.

Retired Brig. Gen. Robert Crear, immediate past president of the commission, briefed the seven-member panel on efforts by his new employer, Massachusetts-based Free Flow Power Development Company, to build underwater turbines to harness the power of large rivers to generate electricity.

Crear called hydropower “more reliable than wind or solar” and said the company, of which he is chairman, will be ready to field test a second turbine in 9 months.

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His comments here were his first public remarks on the $3 billion plan awaiting Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval. Public hearings are planned in Vicksburg on April 14.

Crear is a Vicksburg native and former commander of the Vicksburg District and the Mississippi Valley Division. In the latter role, he was tapped by President George W. Bush as president of the MRC, an advisory panel. His report to his former colleagues was to keep them up-to-date in their role of monitoring issues affecting programs and projects on the river and its tributaries.

One of three firms with applications before FERC, Free Flow plans 55 turbine sites on the river between St. Louis and the Gulf of Mexico. Each would measure 10 feet in diameter and would be installed below navigation depths. Its planners have said they resemble jet engines but spin like windmills to generate about 1,600 megawatts for sale to the power grid or single industries.

Plans call for additional turbines to spin in the waters of the Ohio and Missouri rivers, but the first will be on the Mississippi, Crear said. Two of the sites are along riverbanks off Warren County, according to project developers. One begins near Brunswick and continues 10 river miles south, while the second begins south of Vicksburg Municipal Airport and continues 9.6 river miles.

FERC must give final approval to proceed to all hydropower turbine applicants. Interested firms are aiming to secure a license by 2012.

The federal agency has granted Free Flow exclusive rights on about 100 hydrokinetic and low-impact project sites on the river, Crear said.

An addition to the scope of hydropower’s expansion involves using more dams, Crear said, as only a fraction of the nation’s dams are used to generate electricity.

Also announced at the commission’s semi-annual inspection meeting was an agreement between the Mississippi Valley Division and the National Audubon Society to pool resources on conservation efforts.

A regional memorandum of understanding unites ecosystem restoration experts from environmental and natural resource staff of the division’s six districts, including Vicksburg, with those of the society’s Mississippi River Initiative on efforts in the 12-state division from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Col. Michael Wehr, district engineer for the Corps’ Vicksburg District, assisted with the signing ceremony. The Vicksburg District will lead in implementing the agreement.

“A strengthened relationship between the Corps and Audubon is absolutely essential,” Brig. Gen. Michael Walsh said in a joint statement from the two entities, adding the agreement “will foster even greater collaborative achievements as both organizations strive to preserve our nation’s environment.”

Already under consideration by Corps and Audubon staff are strategies for sustainable management for habitats including the Atchafalaya River Basin in south Louisiana, wetland restoration for storm protection below New Orleans and conservation education in St. Louis at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

“Together, we can meet the broad array of challenges to keep this vital working river a river that works,” Audubon Vice President Roger Still said. “We can advance the restoration of Mississippi Delta habitats that ensure a sustainable future for the people of coastal Louisiana. We can make certain the Mississippi remains as a globally significant migratory flyway for birds, and that it supports other important wildlife species. And we can protect water quality along entire length of the river.”

The Mississippi Valley Division covers 370,000 square miles bordering the 2,348-mile-long Mississippi River. Six interdependent districts comprise it, including the Vicksburg District. Others are at St. Paul, Rock Island, Ill., St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans.


Contact Danny Barrett Jr. at