Ocean Power: The Ignored Alternative

Yves here. As you can tell from the article below, ocean power is really early stage tech, so it will be interesting to see what winds up becoming the dominant approach(es) after the shakeout.

By Llewellyn King. Cross posted from OilPrice

Call it the joy of engineering.

There is such a thing, and it is at its peak when engineers face a challenge unfettered by politics or marketing. Money is frequently a problem, and sometimes part of the challenge.

Ocean power is an engineer’s dream, where seemingly all things are possible.

At the semi-annual International Conference on Ocean Energy, held here this year, unfettered, engineering is the driver. One participant told me, “This is a sandbox for engineers to play in.”

Since the beginning of time man has dreamed of the challenge of harnessing the power of the oceans, with their currents, tides and waves. It was talked about seriously during the energy crisis of the 1970s, and then largely forgotten.

In the early years of the alternative energy industry, engineers enthused about the tidal rise of Canada’s Bay of Fundy and France’s Bay of Biscay as sources of power. Ocean power is more energy dense than wind power. But when it was apparent that no single machine could be developed to generate ocean power, enthusiasm waned. Wind turbines can be standardized, but currents, tides and waves are a site-specific energy source.

As a result wind, solar, geothermal and biomass got the alternative energy development attention and the bulk of the funding. Ocean energy stayed in the speeches, a gleam in the eye of a small group of developers scattered around seafront nations.

Now there is an ocean energy movement. In more than 20 countries, private companies are developing first-generation water turbines.

The United States, once the laggard, is catching up rapidly in both technology and deployment, according to Sean O’Neill, president of the Ocean Renewable Energy Coalition, the Washington-area trade association that represents developers working with 34 different concepts in the United States alone. Recently, O’Neill said, big companies like Lockheed Martin, SAIC and Chevron, have joined the ranks of the developers.

The race is joined, and maritime nations like Ireland want part of the action.

Kevin McCarthy of Enterprise Ireland, a government-backed, trade- development agency, said, “Ireland missed out on becoming part of the supply chain for wind power, but we have great expertise in ocean technology and services. And Ireland wants to be a fundamental part of the supply chain for ocean power development.”

What makes it an almost pure engineering play is that there is no dominant technology, just groups of applications determined by locations like rivers and intermittent and varying conditions, including fast currents and slow currents, shallow tides and deep tides, shallow waves and deep waves.

Anyone who has ever jumped into the waves can imagine how all sorts of devices would bob, dip, circle and twirl in them. The trick is to make a machine that will capture the energy, convert it to electricity and ship it ashore.

Experts say there are 134 designs being worked on or tested. There are tests underway in New York’s East River and in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Florida, Washington and Oregon and Hawaii.

Related Article: Hydroelectric Dams Produce 20 Times more Methane Gas when Water Level is Low

The machines vary widely and wildly, ranging from windmills to bobbing buoys, developed by a Texas company, Neptune Wave Power, which rely on a pendulum, like that in a self-winding watch, to wobble around in the waves without much supervision or maintenance.

The largest operating tidal turbine is in Strangford Lough, in County Down, Northern Ireland . This machine, big at 1.2 megawatts, looks like a twin-engined propeller plane that has had the wings cut off at the engines and then lowered into the water.

Other designs use paddles and panels on hinges, which move back and forth, some in the waves and some in tides. Where the water moves, engineers want to harness it.

“It’s a pure engineering play,” said Bill Staby, founder and chief executive officer of Boston-based Resolute Marine Energy. Staby, a former investment banker, is one of a few developers who see a use for ocean power other than making electricity. His company has a contract with South Africa, and is working with other African governments and localities, to develop water desalination plants using wave power to drive a conventional, off-the-shelf desalination plant, cutting out the expense of electricity or diesel engines.

More than 900 engineers came to Dublin to dream and discuss extraordinary designs. Ocean power is in the place where autos were in the early part of the 20th century: no idea is dominant and no concept, however out of the ordinary, is ridiculed. There is a new frontier in the oceans.

In an era where alternative energy is a political favorite, it is strange that the waves, so familiar to all, have had so little attention. For engineers, it’s time to “go down to the seas again,” as John Masefield wrote romantically. Engineering can be a romantic business.

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  1. Bert_S

    I read about this one a few years back:
    The largest operating tidal turbine is in Strangford Lough, in County Down, Northern Ireland . This machine, big at 1.2 megawatts, looks like a twin-engined propeller plane that has had the wings cut off at the engines and then lowered into the water.
    For comparison, a single unit in a modern coal plant is 550MW. Usually two are built per site. A nuke is 1GW.

    They have a very long way to go.

    1. dan h

      Maybe instead we as a species should realize that your perspective needs to be flipped. How about a focus on less power use, bringing it then to quality over quantity in general, as well as sustainability. The stats show Americans are ridiculously wasteful…the rest of the world wants our standard of living…efficiency will only take us so far.

      1. Obamanation

        Jimmy carter tried that line a few years back. You might recall the reaction was not favorable, ‘American exceptionalism’ and the ‘rugged individualist’ ethos being what they are and all.

        1. Carol Sterritt

          But Carter was not the chosen favorite of the BlackOp government. George Herbert Walker didn’t care for the man. So the propaganda in the newspapers was such that within nine weeks – May 1979 to July 1979 – Carter went from a record high, 61% approval rating to a low of 16%.

          Much of this came about by the fact that oil suddenly became a non-existent material. Kissinger had the oil tankers sitting out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, until Carter’s popularity fell.

          Meanwhile, many affluent Americans were using solar power for the homes they were building. In 1978 and ’79, around 13% of all new homes featured solar. Again, with oil man Herbert Walker Bush holding much of the control over the nation, this was not a good thing. It became very important to G HW Bush to see to it that someone else occupied 1600 Pennsylvannia. And then that new Oval Office occupant, Ron Reagan, was shot and nearly killed before the end of 45 days in office. And although Reagan survived that attack, he was still mesmerized by his many “buddies” in the Big Oil world, and he and the Republicans in the House and Senate saw to it that tax credits for solar and wind were removed.

          1. ambrit

            Dear CS;
            I heard that Reagan actually died after being shot and was replaced by a Disney Animatronic Robot. That explains quite a bit of our recent history.

          2. psychohistorian

            Thank you Carol for keeping the history written by the current winners in proper perspective.

    2. craazyman

      I think they would gang them together like a windfarm. Although I’m far from being an expert on ocean power technologies.

      Utility scale wind turbines run about the same size, individually, but they put a 100 or more in one location and get up to the hundreds of megawatts in one “farm” rivaling conventional fossil fuel plant capacity (at least when the wind is blowing).

      I think ocean windfarms are a lot more expensive to build than land-based farms and the political economy of costly transmission line construction is tricky. At least in the U.S. where utilities are regulated at the state level but power pools are organized at the regional level.

      When you bring more juice onto the grid, you have localized winners and losers among the generators who either support or don’t support the transmission cost required to bring in renewable energy. And the cost has to be allocated somehow among rate payers in different states who pull power from the regional pool but are under different regulatory jurisdictions.

      It’s hell getting transmission built. Projects often take 10 years or more from proposal to completion, that is if they’re not killed. Massive NIMBY issues, environmental oppositon, and public good economics debates that bog down the process. I’m not saying this is inherently bad, but it’s a huge impediment to wider renewables use. I think most renewables construction now is done due to state-level renewable mandates where utilities have to comply by law and can get authorization to recover costs under regulated rate base capital investment programs.

      1. Bert_S

        It may not come as a surprise to many people that ocean construction is expensive. The other problem with both offshore windmills and water turbines is in the ocean they have to be built in a line, one deep, parallel to the shoreline, so 400-500 units is a problem. So these will be only useful in some cases were they are serving a smaller local oceanside community. Long transmission lines would make the economics totally bad.

        But that’s ok, because there is no single big solution to fossil fuel/carbon at this point, so we have to cobble together many wherever they make sense. And like dan_h says above conservation will have to play a much bigger role too.

        With land wind, only 5% of the US population lives in a “good wind” area, so regional transmission lines are needed for this to realize its potential. Interstate regulation is a big issue. To mitigate cost, the concept of energy superhighways is proposed. An example in the west would be a line that goes north to good wind areas, and since this also goes thru desert, thermal solar plants should also be built along the line to share cost. In the east, a north-south line could be built connecting the south’s overcapacity of coal with northern wind. (the south has been adamantly opposed to selling their cheap coal power to Yankees) It is much more complicated that, of course, especially considering the variable power you get from wind and solar, but that gives at least a cartoon sketch of the picture.

        AWEA talks about the concept here:

        It’s pure hell trying to find comparitive cost info between conventional and “renewables” power generation that are done with the same costing methodology. But I finally found this report by the EIA.


      2. Jim

        This is the money phrase, Craazyman, and should have been part of the original post.

        I think most renewables construction now is done due to state-level renewable mandates where utilities have to comply by law and can get authorization to recover costs under regulated rate base capital investment programs.

        And I can’t understand how anyone who calls himself a progressive can support a form of energy which entails a middle-class family paying far more per kilowatt hour than natural-gas generated electricity.

        In the Northeast, “enlightened” state and local governments have sold out their constituents, agreeing to buy offshore windpower at 25 cents a kilowatt hour. And even that 25 cents is subsidized by taxpayers.

        1. GreenEngineer

          And I can’t understand how anyone who calls himself a progressive can support a form of energy which entails a middle-class family paying far more per kilowatt hour than natural-gas generated electricity.

          Because that energy – like all other fossil energy sources – is artificially cheap because externalized costs are neglected. That middle class family is literally burning their children’s future for the sake of saving money now.

        2. Aquifer

          Must have been a misprint – substitute “neoliberal” for “progressive” and you have it about right …

      1. different clue

        I don’t know enough to know. But its a good question. Even if “the whole facility” can’t be standardized, much as huge power-dams are not standardized; some of the internal parts and pieces could surely be standardized. Turbines, etc.

    1. GreenEngineer

      OTEC (ocean thermal energy conversion) is an entirely different technology than wave/tidal power. The problem with OTEC is that the temperature differential isn’t very high so the max possible efficiency isn’t very good, and you wind up having to move an absurd amount of water to get a useful amount of power (think 6′ diameter pipes). Note that this is not a limitation that can be overcome with better engineering; it’s the Carnot limit, which is a strict function of delta-T.

      1. Bert_S

        IIRC, carnot limit is 6%, and they actually might get 3% effy. Compare that to 30% thermal effy of a conventional power plant (fancy new ones can get close to 50%).

        you might say the heat is free, but you are going to need 10X the capital cost.

  2. Newtownian

    While I support alternative energy generically this technology seem more likely to be only localized rather than a global solution – like biofuels made from waste.

    Other limitations are transmission to where it can be used, the very corrosive nature of seawater when you cant seal a unit(moving parts make this difficult). Finally you cant have your very own generator in the backyard and dream of going off grid to spite electricity suppliers who make far more money than the generators.

    A related interesting topic would be to hear a bit about the economics and technologies of storing renewable power oceanic or otherwise like supplementing their output with gas turbines. Solar thermal seems to have a nice system in the form of hot brine and compressed air has merit.

    1. toxymoron

      Hot brine is what allows solar to be baseload (i.e. like nuclear or coal). Confined space aside (where sparks are lethal), I don’t see a future in compressed air: thermodynamics are against it (it heats too much when compressing and cools too much when decompressing).

    2. orr

      “only” localized rather than “global”? surely you jest… can you not think that perhaps localized solutions are the most reasonable, resilient strategy contra our foolish “global” systems?

      1. Tom

        Localized production is, in my view, the best alternative. It can minimize energy loss in distribution by shortening distances – Storage of energy, again in my view, is the most critical aspect in energy usage – Oil is the storage medium of oil and is distributed to point of use. Affordable electric storage is one of the achilles heels that need resolution – both in input time and output density. As far as harvesting energy is concerned – I hold out hope that ocean energy will tie nicely to localized distribution and storage modalities being developed. New switching technology should aid in distributing locally produced electric energy.
        It all comes down to efficiency in conversion, use, storage and distribution. I think distribution and storage have longer to go than conversion and use but, utilizing energy in the most efficient manner is a requirement of sustainability of any energy source.

    3. Synopticist

      “the very corrosive nature of seawater when you cant seal a unit(moving parts make this difficult)”

      This has been the biggest problem I think, along with the sheer violent power of storms. Getting something in the water that produces Elelctricity for 360 days a year isnt hugelly difficult, but not getting it smashed up during the other 6 days a year, and maintaining it for corrosion, is far harder.

      1. optimader

        “the very corrosive nature of seawater when you cant seal a unit(moving parts make this difficult)”

        carbon fiber composites

        1. GreenEngineer

          Carbon fiber composites are strong, but they do not wear well. Bearing surfaces pretty much have to be metal or ceramic. Certain plastics will work, but they don’t have great service life typically and are probably not appropriate for the application.

  3. digi_owl

    The way i see it, the real issue with renewables are not generation but buffering. With hydrocarbon or nuclear, the fuel acts as the buffer between potential output and required output. In both cases, nature has built up this buffer over eons. With renewables however, there is at present no such buffer. Consider the potential if one can store up excess capacity during the night, and release it during the day.

      1. Bert_S

        It’s been pretty thoughly vetted.
        Taking into account evaporation losses from the exposed water surface and conversion losses, approximately 70% to 85% of the electrical energy used to pump the water into the elevated reservoir can be regained.[6] The technique is currently the most cost-effective means of storing large amounts of electrical energy on an operating basis, but capital costs and the presence of appropriate geography are critical decision factors.

  4. Septeus7

    This is first energy post on this site that I’ve agreed with generally speaking. The potential is truly vast if you know where to look and have the political will for bold new engineering.

    Quote from Bert_S: “For comparison, a single unit in a modern coal plant is 550MW. Usually two are built per site. A nuke is 1GW.”

    Even today’s biggest Nukes are tiny compared to what oceans really have to offer. We need to quit F’ing around with low density solar and winds here and there and go big with ocean power which is much denser and more predictable. It will also have huge technological spin offs like the Moon shot.

    Watch this video…http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F6-_UTU_bJ0.

    After Fukushima, I been trying to tell folks living in Japan about how they should be building two or three of these platforms to completely replace the 53 shuttered nukes (I don’t agree with the decision but democracy must prevail) plus the Japanese would get a head start in ocean mining and maybe start exporting materials.

    1. Ray Duray

      Hi Septeus7,

      I enjoyed viewing your Marshall Hydrothermal power video. The fly in the ointment, as I see it, is that hydrothermal vents create new land as massive sulfide deposits. Right now, the ocean ridge vents are building that on the bottom of the ocean. Try to cap the vent and pipe the confined highly corrosive mineral-rich vent water through a heat exchanger to produce steam and you’ll have a clogged system within months if not days. This project concept designer disregards some very basic physics, chemistry and engineering principles.

      1. Bert_S

        Goes sound neat at first blush, so assumming you get all that heat to the surface, then you need a plant to do something with it. The Marshal web site says electric generation (and quickly says “transmit it to shore”), mineral recovery and even local hydrogen electroysis as a way to store and transport the energy. Having toured many plants that do these things, one thing that comes to mind is that they are BIG. So you now need a huge floating platform that can bob up and down and still stay connected to the “pipe”. And also perhaps be disconnected and moved in the case of hurricanes/tsunamis like they do with {comparatively small] oil platforms.

    2. Susan the other

      Corrosive vent water notwithstanding, this sounds like such a good idea I’d almost expect Japan and China to be doing it already.

  5. Rab

    In addition to brine for baseload you also may one day have millions of batteries, in the form of idle electric cars.

    Problem in that because pollution of conventional energy production is considered costless by mainstream economics government subsidy is required.

    Not saying subsidy is wrong, just that certain groups with short-term views will object to higher taxes to support green initatives and demand that all energy production alternatives compete on a “level playing field” blah blah blah.

  6. Scott

    Any device that pulls energy from the ocean will impact the behavior of the ocean, whether it be changing current speed and direction or wave height. That will have an environmental impact… killing fish, changing local weather patterns, altering the natural balance of life surrounding the generation devices and changing local erosion patterns. While an interesting idea, don’t forget that this technology is not without environmental impact.

    1. Bert_S

      hehe. My first thought was it will make the moon’s orbit decay, but that’s just the H.P. Lovecraft in me.

  7. Max424

    Turbines in all the rivers and all the seas. Producing clean energy for human kind –while slicing up the innocent fishies, making fish meal out of em.

    Just kidding. All for it. Think the government should tax the ulta-rich and use the money to (help) research and develop it.

    Hard working underwater though. When I hear the words, divers and repair, I reach for the snooze button –the one with the Rip Van Winkle option.

    At least right now, in these tremulous early stages, turbines on land is what I like best. Turbines where I can see em, and watch em, and fix em quick, should a terrorist knock one down out of hatred for our freedoms.

  8. D

    I live in central america, and drive a huge Land Rover with a 2.5 Mitsu diesel. It is more than enough. Why, in USA, can I only by diesel truck with 7.5 liter? Cause we’re dumb and wasteful. We are unthinking morons taught ‘more is better’.

    1. Jim

      You want to accuse Americans of being “dumb and wasteful”????

      I’m certain that the vast majority of Central Americans, living on a few dollars a month, would consider your 2.5L Land Rover “dumb and wasteful”.

  9. heresy101

    Its interesting that Yves and New Yorkers haven’t mentioned the East River turbines. The was an article a number of years ago how the current had wrecked havoc with fiberglass blades in the East River. It appears that the’re back with a FERC license: http://verdantpower.com/

    In San Francisco, Mayor Newsom made the mistake of hiring the nuclear bent URS to study harnessing the SF Bay tides. Not surprisingly, the report came back negative:



  10. Mike

    This is exciting. Clean energy would be amazing. I always get excited for when new forms of energy come to the world because it betters it for everyone. Think of 3rd world companies with the ability to build and sustain ocean power plants. I have a feeling that it will be a while, even after the technology is built because of companies being afraid of when new energy comes into play the old will be out. For example when electric cars first started becoming developed major gasoline companies would pay the company that made the car to recall the test cars and they would be scrapped.

  11. ambrit

    All this talk about harnessing wave energy and no one mentions an ocean energy system first tested out off Martinique way back in the last century utilizing the thermal layers in the ocean to drive the generators. This version of ocean energy is going through a vigorous engineering shake down period now. A large test bed project is being run in Hawaii today. The dreaded TEPCO is even involved in a Japanese venture along those lines. What everyone is striving for now is to reach the golden “Economy of Scale” state. For that matter, anyone here heard about the Stirling Engine? An oldie but goodie that works quite well.

    1. different clue

      The link I offered upthread above in the comments did/does indeed mention the general version of that concept . . . Oceanic Thermal Energy Conversion. I’ll re-offer it . . . http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ocean_thermal_energy_conversion

      and another . . http://www.nrel.gov/otec/what.html
      (those links are just general concept, though).

      Someone offered a good caution upthread. If organized mankind suck-diverts enough energy from ocean systems into direct human turbine-turning use, organized mankind will degrade ocean-energy function by just that much, and maybe cross the threshhold of eco-physical service-provision degradation or shutdown. So perhaps organized mankind should think about energy use restriction. Industrial Consumer mankind would have to go first, of course; to show our sincerity and be taken seriously.

    2. Bert_S

      The Stirling Engine is used in some thermal solar designs to drive a generator. Most efficient heat to mechanical conversion there is.

    3. GreenEngineer

      The problem is a low delta-T and thus inherently low efficiency (damn you, Carnot!). See my comment above.

  12. different clue

    Back to the concept of local energy production/extraction for local use so as to escape the transmission losses over long distances . . . here is an interesting website (the websiter also has a book) called The Hybrid Electric Home. It is about individual free-standing rural home electrification which was spreading all over rural America before the New Deal’s Rural Electrification initiative. Then it became a lost art and a lost era, almost lost to memory and history. But a few lonely people are working to revive it. linkyhere . .

    Then too, people are working on how to live a perfectly acceptable 20th Century Lifestyle ( Oh! its the “21st” Century now? details details . . . )with much less electricity than most people think necessary. The web is stuffed with entries on “life/living without electricity” which is too purist for me because without electricity there is no web. But we could certainly use the knowledge to live with LESS electricity . . . to reserve the electricity for the things which ONLY electricity can do.
    Here is a website called Do The Math by a California physics professor showing many serious pathways to serious energy use restriction and reduction. http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/

    Here is a website by an energy efficiency engineer/consultant in California called The Energy Guy, also about doing sufficiently-enough with way-less.

  13. different clue

    Someone upthread raised the question of storing intermittently available renewably-sourced energy for when it wasn’t being produced. Pumped water storage was mentioned as a way to store surplus wind-power for when the wind wasn’t blowing, for example. A passive-default approach to this might be just simply not releasing water from behind a power dam when windfarms are producing the electricity that falling water would otherwise produce. . . if the windfarm is within the same “powershed”.

    A very neat blog called The Ergosphere by a blogger called Engineer Poet addresses all kinds of energy production/energy use efficiency questions. In one of his posts he noted that it is hard to store electricity, but easier to store the kinds of things electricity makes possible. He referrenced windpower in Holland feeding deepfreeze refrigeration in wholesale and storage warehouses
    in Holland. Their safe storage temperature is 0 degrees. So when the wind is blowing, use the windmade electricity to run the warehouse storage freezers till the warehouses are at -5 or -10 or however cold the windmade power will get them. When the wind stops, let them slowly climb back to 0 degrees before having to spend any fuelmade power keeping them properly cold. In other words, storing up chill . . . a “nega-thermal” battery. I can’t remember what post that was in. He has all kinds of neat posts.
    And if we have no other way out but to think about nuclear power all over again, he offers some interesting and unique ways to think about that too, if we end up with no other choice.

    On whose blogroll did I discover The Ergosphere? On Big Gav’s blogroll. Big Gav runs Peak Energy.

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