Earlier, it was reported that I helped with the drafting of the original ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) legislation in Congress, which became law in 1979. If the Blue Revolution ever develops, the whole concept will depend on OTEC. The following is excerpted from Chapter 4 of SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Planet Earth.
When I first was exposed to OTEC in the mid 1970s, I was a skeptic. I even submitted an environmental impact statement questioning the potential effect on the coastal region. Having experienced the birth of the legislation, though, and realizing that this technology could well be the key to the success of the Pacific International Center for High Technology Research (PICHTR) and a tonic for the planet, I became not only a supporter, but self proclaimed savior.
The U.S. Department of Energy and the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry abhorred this energy option. On the Japanese side, the money to PICHTR came from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the U.S., the funds were stuffed down the throat of the USDOE by Congress, and this was some achievement in the mid-80’s, as Ronald Reagan had virtually shut down the solar program. Hawaii ended up with all the meager OTEC funds because our only competition came from Guam and the Caribbean, neither which had a real congressional member. Sea Solar Power of Maryland made a run for some funds, but never made it to first base. Part of this was a ploy we by chance stumbled into that changed the whole nature of the game.
The USDOE director of wind/OTEC programs in those days, Leonard Rogers, had a drink with Louis Rotundo (yes, that same individual who saved the hydrogen program--Chapter 3) of the Florida Solar Energy Center and me at Trader Vic’s in the District. Rogers came right out and said he was closing the program down because the government had done all it could for closed cycle OTEC and now it was up to industry to pick it up. There was nothing more to research. In a leap of logic that still astounds me, Louis says, “what about open cycle OTEC?” Len was not too up on this technology, so I explained that open cycle did not use ammonia or Freon and produced freshwater as a by-product. The whole system had been abandoned since Georges Claude’s experiment 60 years ago, but today would have a lot more potential because most of the OTEC areas in the world with electricity needs also could use potable water. No one had done any turbine research and it was time to work out an internationally cooperative program for developing nations. In those days international partnerships and helping deprived areas were not of high priority for our Federal government. However, there was something about this “new” technology that gained Len’s attention. I did tell him that I would leverage his input with funds from Japan, and that seemed to be a plus. In hindsight now, open cycle made no sense for larger OTEC activities because of the inefficiency of this cycle. But it did serve an important bridge to develop the technology.
So the USDOE totally adjusted its objectives and PICHTR proceeded to gobble up all the OTEC funds because there was no competition in open cycle OTEC. I recruited Lloyd Trimble, who was with Lockheed on the Mini-OTEC project, Luis Vega and Gerard Nihous, who had a small company in Berkeley, California, and a bit later, Andrew Trenka, who once managed the OTEC project out of the Solar Energy Research Institute in Golden, Colorado. They hired a staff and we just re-invented open cycle OTEC.
In 1988 I engineered the publication of a paper entitled, “Converting OTEC for Commercial Use in the Pacific,” with Leonard Rogers as the lead author and Fujio Matsuda, Luis Vega and I as co-authors. It was published in Sea Technology, and sealed the deal for the PICHTR group, which proceeded to gain $22.2 million from the USDOE, $4.5 million from the State of Hawaii and $8.2 million of others (including Japan, of course). The 210 kW (gross, 40 kW net) open cycle system saw groundbreaking in 1991 at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority and full operation, with freshwater, in 1994. The system actually produced 103 kW of maximum net power.
At around this time, about a decade after Paul Yuen and I first thought up the concept of this international technology transfer organization, I parted with PICHTR. The University of Hawaii had continued to pay my salary while I directed the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, so I was helping PICHTR on a pro bono (I did it for free) basis. There were new fields to conquer, as I was named to the U.S. Secretary of Energy’s Hydrogen Technical Panel and began championing the Blue Revolution and Green Enertopia. In parallel, I had intitiated the effort and laid the foundation for PICHTR eventually garnering $20 million for a biomass to methanol project.