A River Runs Through It

Why Alexander Gorlov's helical turbine should help speed the demolition of dams

| July / August 2005

Hydroelectric dams kill fish, destabilize ecosystems, and make it hard for river-dependent Native American tribes to get three squares a day. Concerned activists, stymied by an unsympathetic Bush administration, are swimming upstream just to get more 'ladders' to help fish navigate the locks. But according to OnEarth (Spring 2005), a mechanical engineering professor at Northeastern University in Boston has successfully tested a turbine so efficient in generating energy that it could one day eliminate the need for these environmental hazards.

OnEarth reports that professor Alexander Gorlov's helical turbine, a device that's 100 inches long and resembles 'an oversize beater from an old hand-held mixer,' can harness kinetic energy from any body of moving water, including canals, open oceans, and rivers. So-called free flow hydropower costs about $1,500 per kilowatt, roughly the same as wind power, and the whirling turbines can harness up to 3,000 gigawatts of power, which is 97 percent more efficient than any other current power source. Preliminary tests also indicate that, given space, fish will swim around the whirling turbines.

The Republic of South Korea installed a Gorlov turbine and plans to order thousands more from a manufacturer in New Jersey, but the U.S. government has not shown much enthusiasm for the invention, save for a research and development grant in 1990. That's a shame, since there are many places in the United States where an alternative way to generate hydroelectric power could be beneficial. One is the Pacific Northwest's Klamath-Trinity watershed, where, EcoNews (April 2005) reports, there has been a drastic decline in the number of endangered wild salmon due to dam-related diseases and low water flows.

Though the outlook for the Klamath River is grim (this year could be one of the driest in the basin since 1961), there are plenty of forward-thinkers who, like Gorlov, are working to make a difference. Nature Conservancy (Spring 2005) reports that for the first time in more than 180 years, the Neversink River in the Catskill Mountains is flowing freely. That's because last October scientists and activists braved floodwaters to help dismantle the Cuddebackville Dam, causing brook trout and American shad to quickly swim some 40 miles away from where they had been trapped.

There's also a push under way to remove unused or crumbling dams. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit American Rivers says that 60 dams were removed in the United States in 2004, which is double the number demolished in 2003. Most municipalities, understanding that dams often cost more to repair than to destroy, have been eager to see them go. When the Embrey Dam on the Rappahannock River was demolished in February 2004, onlookers cheered wildly. It's a good guess that the newly freed fish were pleased as well.