Oceans of Possibility

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Verdant Power Free Flow Turbine Being Deployed in East River (December 2006) Photographer: Kris Unger; Source: Verdant Power, Inc

Verdant Power Free Flow Turbine Being Deployed in East River (December 2006) Photographer: Kris Unger; Source: Verdant Power, Inc

Enterprising entrepreneurs and scientists have been pushing to harness the power of the ocean as a direct source of energy to end dependence on fossil fuels. The Electric Power Research Institute defines ocean energy as a variety of renewable energy forms relating to the ocean, including wave energy, tidal energy, river current, ocean current energy, offshore wind, salinity gradient energy and ocean thermal gradient energy.”

One potential major source of ocean energy comes from deep water wind. According to the Ocean Energy Institute in the state of Maine, “the annual wind potential” in the United States alone is above 10,000 billion kilowatt hours, which helps account for more than one percent of electricity provided to domestic consumers. The American Wind Energy Association, the trade organization for the wind energy industry, reports the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act “contains multiple provisions to benefit the wind industry,” which include loans, grants and tax credits. The OEI is a part of the ambitious Pickens Plan founded by Texas oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens to expand wind energy and natural gas development in order to reduce dependence on imported oil.

The Ocean Energy Institute lies not far from another hotspot of alternative energy controversy. The wind turbine project set to be constructed off the coast of Massachusetts, near the Nantucket Sound and Cape Cod, on Horseshoe Shoal will be the first offshore wind farm in the United States. Seven years in development because of permitting issues, Cape Wind‘s president Jim Gordon, in a press release, said “Cape Wind is shovel-ready.”

The Siting Board voted on May 21to grant the Certificate of Environmental Impact and Public Interest, which approves all of the state and local permits, with minor modifications.

“Massachusetts has done its job to give this project a long and thorough review on the merits, and the federal review process is winding to a close,” said Governor Deval Patrick in a press release. “The time has come to see the first offshore wind farm in America rise off the Massachusetts coast, a powerful symbol of our commitment to a clean energy future.”

Outside of the United States, wind-generated power, via turbines, is a real option. In a recent NASA piece (available for viewing on Earthzine) on Brazil and wind turbines, Filipe Pimenta explored the feasibility of a Brazilian harvesting of wind, the needed technologies, and the diversification of ‰ÛÏthe Brazilian electric grid.‰Û In Denmark, wind power is not a new idea, as Danish industries have been involved with the wind-energy business for decades. The Danish Wind Industry Association, a Denmark-based nonprofit pushing for further wind power use and representing 99.9% of all Danish wind turbine makers, has the ambitious goal of having wind power provide 50% of “wind energy in the Danish system by 2025.” Currently, somewhere between one-fifth and one-quarter of Denmark’s energy is provided by wind power, according to the DWIA.

Ocean Wave Energy

Ocean Wave Energy

Jim Barbera, past president of IEEE/Oceanic Engineering Society, said that many of those opposing these and similar projects are residents who may want alternative energy use, but not at the cost of (possibly) sacrificing fabled views. The Cape Wind 130-turbine project, granted go-ahead from the Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board, which gave the company an Environmental Impact and Public Interest certificate, left aesthetics and storage issues unresolved. Cape Wind has estimated that when functioning, its wind turbines could provide about 75 percent of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Islands’ electricity via the turbines.

Barbera surmises that the “widespread use of ocean energy harnessing” is maybe still 10-15 years in the future, but the ocean provides a vast array of ways to get energy. “The obvious one people think about is wind turbines.” However, the energy produced by a wave’s movement is a powerful thing, indeed. Waves are one of the most, if not the most, energy-potent sources. The tidal motion of the ocean can provide useful energy, as well. Some energy projects focus on the surface waves, as influenced by the wind, while others focus on the beneath-the-surface energy potential of water in motion.

A stumbling block today with currents and ocean-turbines is that these centers are “site specific,” meaning that where you can get the best energy source, isn’t necessarily where you see the greatest demand for power. This brings to the fore the issue of distribution and transmission, and finding effective ways to harness, store and distribute power to other more needy areas.

An interesting source of marine energy Barbera sees as having significant potential are gas hydrates. “Gas hydrates on the bottom,” are basically, metaphorically, little ice cubes with methane in them, he explains. “They’re spawned at thermal vents on the ocean floor ‰Û_ or by microbes. The energy community hasn’t quite figured out how to efficiently tap this source of energy yet.‰Û However, with the amazing developments in science and technology taking place on a daily basis, gas hydrates should become a more readily translatable source of energy.

According to the Ocean Renewable Energy Coalition, the trade association focusing on supporting renewable ocean energy measures, there is plenty to be excited about. In a profile of upcoming speakers at the Global Marine Renewable Energy Conference held recently at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, DC, Gregory Hagood, CFA, the managing director of Navigant Capital Advisors, noted that “funding from the U.S. government, while lagging European government commitments‰Û_ is improving” and that the 2007 Marine Renewable Energy Research and Development Act (which will fund through 2012) allotted $50 million dollars to Hawaii- and Oregon-based marine energy research centers, among other positive developments for marine energy.

Silverstrand Beach in Oxnard, Susannah Kopecky photo

Silverstrand Beach in Oxnard, Susannah Kopecky photo

Sean O’Neill, the president of OREC, the Ocean Renewable Energy Coalition trade association pointed to the potential of water energy projects, when speaking with Earthzine. “When you look at the power of water, it’s something like 650 times denser than air, whereas waves and tides are more predictable than wind.” However due to progress in offshore wind projects in Europe, offshore wind is probably going to be the biggest contributor in the next three years as a renewable energy resource.

O’Neill pointed to the Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy Project in New York City, which produces energy via a collection of tidal turbines. It “took five years and $5.5 million dollars, but it is an excellent example of the progress being made by dedicated and innovative companies like Verdant Power.”

Maine is also a hotspot of marine energy research, particularly with researching offshore wind and tidal power. O’Neill noted that, “You do find along the east coast some great tidal resources.”

Typically you find that the wave resources are the best on the West Coast of any continent‰Û_ that’s why the Pacific Northwest, Northern California and Alaska, have great wave resources. Oregon and Washington State are also shaping up to be major centers of renewable ocean energy research. O’Neill added that the U.S. Navy is looking to build a tidal technology center in Washington to work with tidal turbines.

Though there are some very positive developments in the arena of renewable, ocean-based technology, as of today, out of a total 81 technologies being considered worldwide, O’Neill counted only 17 that the United States is currently looking at. The Global Marine Renewable Energy Conference (organized by O‰ÛªNeill) was recently held in Washington, D.C. At the conference, many issues were touched upon, including ways to go about strengthening alternative energy productions, why it is beneficial for all to support marine energy sources, and the interlocking connection between governmental regulations and emerging marine renewable energy projects. Perhaps by the 2010 conference, that number will be somewhere closer to 81.