The powerful Gulf Stream current provides South Florida with a moderate year-round climate and sweeps into the region a rich variety of marine life.

Could it also help keep the lights on?

A research program by Florida Atlantic University plans to place turbines in the water next year to test the potential of using the current that runs along the state's east coast to generate electricity. The university was issued a lease last week by the federal government for 1,068 acres of ocean about a dozen miles off Fort Lauderdale, the first ever issued by the government to test ocean current technology.

"The Gulf Stream contains a tremendous amount of energy, and this technology offers exciting potential to expand the nation's renewable energy portfolio," said Walter Cruickshank, acting director of the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Under the plan, FAU will deploy experimental turbines in the water from ships moored to buoys anchored to the ocean floor, testing the system's potential for generating power and seeing what obstacles would need to be overcome.

No one makes extravagant claims for the possibilities of power from the Gulf Stream. Even a workable system, sending electricity via cables to the mainland, would not replace the power plants that use oil, natural gas or uranium to power South Florida's lights and air conditioners.

"We're not going to replace conventional power plants," said Susan Skemp, director of FAU's Southeast National Marine Renewable Energy Center. "We're going to provide a source of energy that has to be transmitted to shore. This is part of a menu of renewables."

Robert Thresher, research fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a federal agency, said ocean current technology is in its infancy and no one yet knows its potential.

"All of this technology is about where wind was in the early 1980s," he said. "It's a new technology. Nobody quite knows how to do it well yet. That's why the work at FAU is important."

Realistically, he said, it may be possible to develop the technology so it provides a significant amount of South Florida's electricity.

"I think there's a potential to get to the equivalent or one or two nuclear plants," he said. "It's not earth-shaking. But it's not trivial.''

Even if the technology turns out to be feasible, he said, it's potential for replication around the world is not great, since strong ocean currents come close enough to land in only a few areas, such as Japan and the east coast of Africa.

FAU's turbine, which weighs 5,000 pounds, uses a three-blade rotor to generate electricity. Under the plan, private companies with which the university is already in discussions would be able to use the leased area to test their own turbines. Up to three turbines could be tested at once.

The environmental impact of the testing program would be minimal, according to a detailed review released last summer by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

The review looked at the possible impact on fish, marine mammals, sea turtles, coral and water quality. It said FAU would be required to conduct video surveys of the ocean floor before deploying chains and anchors to avoid damaging coral.

More extensive environmental reviews, likely to include an environmental impact statement, would be conducted before the actual deployment of a functioning system of turbines that would generate electricity for transmission to the mainland.

With the lease agreement in hand, FAU's next steps include drafting a detailed operating plan and getting that approved. Deployment of the first buoy is expected to take place this year, with the first turbine set in the water sometime early next year.

When could an array of turbines actually send usable power to the mainland? FAU's Skemp says it's possible within 10 years.

©2014 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)