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Tuesday, September 13, 2011


The Year 1979 was memorable.  To quote from SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Planet Earth:

Do You Believe in Miracles?

One final story of how one person made a difference. The Fall of 1979 was not a good time for the American Nation. I arrived in the U.S. Senate. Well, that was the best part. Earlier in the year, China had invaded Vietnam, the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster occurred not that far from the national capitol, the YMCA sued the Village People over their song of the same name and the second oil crisis with those interminable gasoline lines made life difficult.

Another plus that summer was Lockheed with Mini-OTEC attaining net positive for the first time ever off Keahole Point on the Big Island, just off the coast where the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii rested, which was later combined with the adjacent Hawaii Ocean Science and Technology Park and renamed the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority.  At the entrance is the Gateway Center, where Guy Toyama, Executive Director for the Friends of NELHA, organized the first real summit for commercial OTEC interests.  All the principles were there, save for one.  Where was Hans?  But there were representatives for Lockheed Martin, Xenesys, IHI, Ocean Thermal Energy Corporation, Makai Ocean Enginering, OTEC International, Saga University, DOD, NREL and more.

But back to 1979, I was working in one of the laser fusion groups at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory under Edward Teller, the father of the Hydrogen Bomb, when I was asked to join the staff of U.S. Senator Spark Matsunaga.   Just around this time, Mini-OTEC happened (and, if you go to Wikipedia on OTEC, this monumental event, selected as one of the ten best engineering achievements of that year, is not even mentioned).  For a more accurate short history, click on my 30July2008 daily blog.  I thus helped draft the original OTEC bill, which a year later was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter.  One clause, in particular, is memorable:

Directs the Secretary to prepare a comprehensive technology application and market development plan that will permit the realization of the national goal set forth in this Act of 10,000 megawatts of electrical capacity or energy product equivalent from OTEC systems by 1999.

Thus, twenty years after enaction, the total sum of OTEC was zero (sadly, the successful open cycle 210 kW OTEC facility was torn down at NELHA by then), and a dozen years later, we remain at ZERO.  So why the sudden optimism?

When during this same time frame I helped marshal that wind energy bill that became law, there was no sense that this technology would have significance in the marketplace.  However, windpower is today the only really competitive (with hydropower and geothermal) renewable source.  

Why then did OTEC not make it commercially?  Very simple.  You can purchase a good sized wind energy conversion device for a few thousand dollars, although a 1 MW machine will cost you something closer to $2 million.  However, the cost of commercial 100 MW OTEC facilities begin at half a billion dollars (as speculated by a very well illustrated report from Puerto Rico).  However, I've seen higher estimates.  In any case, our society has not found a way to finance a gargantuan innovative portfolio.  

A good example of this no-go zone is that industry and government have not been able to traverse this gap on marine energy alternatives.  They have chosen wavepower because you want show you are doing something, and this hopeless mechanism is small, and, therefore, cheap, enough.  The cost of trying to protect a wave generation machine will overwhelm the economics and only after continued destruction by storms will wavepower be someday discarded. Mind you, a few projects will succeed because they will be naturally protected.  However, this option will not exceed a few megawatts even in a decade.

Much of life is a matter of timing.  Pointing to a third bill I drafted, on hydrogen, some of us had high hopes for this ideal fuel.  But reality is another matter.  It is just too expensive to produce, store and ship hydrogen, and I'm afraid it will take another generation or century before "something can happen" to make this option commercial.  The Hydrogen Economy should someday flourish, and the key could well be aviation, but it is not ready for prime time.
So I ask again, why the optimism for OTEC?  Desperation!  Yes, desperation!!!  When the Fukushima disaster occurred, Japan, which has meager solar, wind, bio and geo options, and has chosen to abandon nuclear fission over time, will more and more find that their only hope is to turn to a sustainable option that is colossal. I organized a seminar to provide two solutions:  STARPOWER and the Blue Revolution.  The first facility for STARPOWER will cost $50 billion.  The Blue Revolution, powered by OTEC, is much "cheaper."  Thus, the timing has arrived for OTEC thanks to the Great Tohoku Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Cataclysm.

This is the current state of ocean thermal energy conversion, or OTEC, technology:

  -  NELHA only needs $5 million to install a turbogenerator and additional pumping to generate net positive OTEC at their Makai Ocean Engineering Test Facility, which presently mostly tests heat exchangers, where aluminum alloys and titanium are in competition.  The aluminum option is five times cheaper, so that should be the story, except that both the Japanese and one of the American systems plan to use titanium.  The significance of any operations OTEC system is that the ZERO will now be 10 kW or, maybe, even 100.   I expect this to occur next year (only my hope, but with good reason).  Pat and Guy (we were the facilitators at the OTEC workshop) at this test bed.

  -  NELHA seven years ago installed a 55 (that's Noriko posing next to the pipe cross section) inch diameter pipe capable of pumping 27,000 gallons per minute, although I'm sure there will be at least one contention that it will be possible to increase that rate by a factor of two.  The point is that everything is in place to install a 1 MW OTEC plant (gross or net depending of the system and cold water availability).  I suggested that this site to also be made an international test facility to allow more than one system to be linked to the pipe.  If nothing else, say three are built, surely one of them will work, for failure at this point will kill the future of OTEC.  Why is there any need for a 1 MW (or 500 kW) system?  This needed scale-up will enable investors to gain confidence.  Why is there a problem?  The vendors that utilize this cold water will balk at the possibility of leaking ammonia (which is invariably the working fluid) from these closed cycle systems will decimate their investment.  Solution?  Stay tuned.

  -  Several teams are designing 5-10 MW floating (anything over 1 MW will produce too much water that disposal on land becomes a serious problem) systems.  As the electricity cost in Hawaii is 300% higher than the mainland average, it is not impossible that, with freshwater and other co-products, even this prototype project could approach break-even. All these companies use closed cycle OTEC (top, from Luis Vega).  I should add that Desikan Bharathan (from NREL) and I continue to believe that there is a role for open cycle (below, also from Vega).  I indicated to Desikan that he should form an open cycle company to market this device to resorts around the world, for I think a 1-5 MW system could competitively provide air conditioning, freshwater, electricity, seafood and many other products with no downstream problems, for this technology does not use ammonia.

  -  Designs are also being readied for that mythical 100 MW OTEC plantship.  At least two corporations are saying that they can today build such a facility, and negotiations are being finalized with utilities in Hawaii and the Caribbean.  Nothing much more I can say about this phase of development, but I am a lot more optimistic than I was only last week.

Back in the dark ages of OTEC, Bill Avery and I had a project using UV to prevent biofouling of the heat exchange tubes.  He went on in 1984 to write the definitive textbook on the subject (the book that Andy Trenka and I in 1996 produced for the United Nations was written to guide engineers from developing countries) and intrigued me with his patent on producing methanol on a 160 MW grazing plantship.  Then there are various 1000 MW versions, the one to the left being the French Energy Island.  So 100 MW will only be the beginning.

The Dow Jones Industrials rose 45 to 11,106, with mixed world markets.  Gold increased $11/toz to $1835, while the Brent is now at $111/barrel and WTI at $90/barrel.

Last week I mentioned that Hurricane Katia would miss the USA but strike Scotland.  Well, incredibly enough, Northern Scotland yesterday was struck by Katia, still with gusts up to 85 MPH.


1 comment:

Gary said...

Mist Lift OTEC requires no ammonia!