Flying kites... under water

Philippe Vauthier, a onetime jeweler, strives to harness the power of the tides to wean the nation off oil. His latest project is to sink turbines in a Delaware river, which fishermen oppose.

For Tiffany's, Philippe Vauthier fashioned a gold chalice for Pope John Paul II, and a brace of gold-trimmed derringers for a Virginia historical society, which somehow wound up in the possession of Gregory Peck. That was in another life, as they say, one he left behind after he won a patent for an underwater turbine he designed to harvest energy from ocean tides and the flow of rivers. Though he disdains the word, he is an inventor.

To Mr. Vauthier, a naturalized Canadian, born and trained in the jeweler's craft in Switzerland, inventions don't happen: "There are innovations. People observe things in nature and make use of them. The turbine exploits the laws of physics, which were always there."

He calls his "innovation" the Underwater Electric Kite, or UEK. This is the logo of the firm he and his artist wife, Denise, established here in 1981. The turbine is so named because it moves like a kite: Anchored to the bottom by a cable and controlled by a computer, it rises or descends searching for the layer of water where the tidal current runs fastest.

Faster currents yield more energy. Marine turbines, propellers contained within a housing, do underwater what windmills do in the air: draw energy from their element.

Vauthier has had some success with his aquatic kites. He is working with Alaska Power and Telephone Company, a utility, to put two turbines in the Yukon River to provide power for the town of Eagle. Bob Grimm, president of Alaska Power, says he thinks the UEK technology "might be revolutionary."

Vauthier designed one for the New York Power Authority for use in the East River. He has a contract to put two in a river in Zambia, to light a missionary school and hospital, and also in the Caqueta River in Colombia to serve two local communities.

His projects, usually 50 to 100 kilowatts, haven't been large. Nor have his earnings. Yet he's undaunted. "You lose until you win," he says, with the peculiar pride of the determined survivor. "I didn't get rich, but what a great ride!" He sees his life as "an intellectual adventure."

As alternative energies go, tidal power is one of the most difficult to master. Not every inlet or bay is suitable for a turbine and undersea cables. Repairing equipment underwater is difficult and corrosion a constant problem. Also, disrupting the flow of currents or tides can harm fish and other aquatic life. While Canada, Russia, and France have pursued major tidal projects, the technology remains a stepchild here.

Nonetheless, devotees believe tapping the power of the tides can contribute to the nation's power grid in local areas, and interest in various ocean technologies is growing. "It is more than just a gleam in the eye," says Andrew Trenka, an alternative energy expert at the US Department of Energy. "We are in a time when we need to look at these technologies much more aggressively."

Vauthier has been pursuing his vision of underwater electrical sockets since the first oil shock, in 1973. At the time, the shortage brought widespread panic, lines at the gas pump, and President Carter's plea to conserve energy, which set Vauthier to thinking: What better purpose than to find a way to produce clean, renewable energy - to help end the addiction to fossil fuels? Thus inspired, he built his turbine and established UEK.

Many other people felt the same as Vauthier at the time. They popped up with schemes to draw power from the sun, the sea, from such commodities as jojoba oil, sugar cane, even methane gas from cows. Suddenly, the Vauthiers found themselves in a world peopled by idealists, wildcat entrepreneurs, rich and poor, some crackpots - a small world then, probably smaller now.

After Middle East oil began to flow, most people's enthusiasm for clean energy melted like butter in the sun. But not Vauthier's. To finance his operations, he continued in his old craft. But his sight was failing, and his hands grew less dexterous. Manipulating precious stones and metals became difficult. "Imagine if I were to strike the diamond in the wrong place," he says, suggesting, perhaps, every jeweler's nightmare. In 1999 he turned his full attention to his second career.

Now, at last, he feels circumstances are moving in his direction again. The spike in gasoline prices has people all over the country thinking of alternative energy, from hydro to hydrogen-powered cars. "We stayed with it all those years. They all got out, but we stayed," says Vauthier in a faintly boastful voice.

He is a bearish man, his face masked by an anarchic beard, gray and white; his amiable smile flashes abruptly from within this thicket. His accent is French and deep; he's not always easily understood.

In March of last year, he was hooted off a stage in Delaware. He had come to tell a group of recreational fishermen about his latest and most ambitious project: a plan to reap energy from the swift tidal flow through the Indian River Inlet, where the sea enters Delaware's Indian River Bay. Vauthier wants to sink 25 turbines in the inlet to generate 10 megawatts of electricity, power for about 10,000 people.

The inlet is a deep, energetic stream nearly 100 yards wide through which small pleasure craft and working fishing boats pass. Opened by storms about 90 years ago, the inlet was stabilized with parallel rock jetties. These create a choke-point that impels the water through at a speed that can reach six knots, making it one of the fastest-running tides on the East Coast.

Vauthier told the fishermen the project wouldn't inhibit their sport. The turbines, fixed 45 feet beneath the surface, would be marked with buoys and screened to block entry of the smallest fish and prevent snagging lures. "When he started talking, they shouted, 'Get down, Frenchy!' " and other disagreeable remarks, says David Rickards, UEK's representative in Delaware, who was there.

Phillip Cherry, policy director of Delaware's Department of Natural Resources, says he's skeptical that the turbines would not affect "the fisheries and the 'fishability' of the inlet." He's disinclined to permit Vauthier to submerge even one turbine. Meanwhile, Timothy Targett, at the University of Delaware's College of Marine Studies, is poised to run a test on the turbine's impact on "incoming and outgoing larvae and juvenile fish." He thinks the test could prove positive.

Vauthier's project, in other words, is not a sure thing. Nor is it high and dry. Mr. Rickards, whose job is to find investors, says there are other influential people to talk to in government.

Vauthier estimates UEK will need $1 million to put the first turbine in for testing, then $9 million for the rest, a lot of money. Nonetheless, he exudes optimism. "We are at a point where things are turning around," he says. "We've lost practically every year. Now we will win!"

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