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Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Windpower (right, the anticipated Norwegian offshore 10 MW wind turbine--today, bigger appears to be better) is the only new "almost" cost competitive renewable energy source, with hydropower and geothermal.  All next generation solar technologies would today fail were it not for government incentives.  Windpower, too, would collapse if the production tax credit of 2.2 cents/kilowatt-hour is suddenly abandoned.  It unfortunately is being held hostage in the U.S. Congress because of politics.

I happened to working for U.S. Senator Spark Matsunaga in D.C. just about a third of a century ago when Lockheed succeeded with Mini-OTEC in Hawaii.  Matsunaga thus asked me to help draft the first OTEC R&D bill, which became law in a few months.  During this same period, in the midst of the Second Energy Crisis, I helped Tom Gray (that's him today), a House staff member, push through the first wind energy act.  I had a few years before been chairman of the Wind Power Division of the American Solar Energy Society.  How this happened was essentially incredible, and epitomizes the story of my life.  Anyway, the bill passed and Tom went on to help found the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).  Ed Ing, who was Matsunaga's chief counsel, sharing the same office with me in the Senate, twenty or so years subsequently, became chairman of AWEA.

Windpower provided as much electricity last year as 11 nuclearpower facilities.  There is no commercial ocean energy facility operational today.  

Comparing wind to coal (you need to divide by 10 to get cents/kWh):

As attractive as it looks for windpower, wheeling costs kick the price up to at least 10 cents/kWh.  More so, solar photovoltaics (residence) is at 25 cents/kWh and solar farms (including cost of the power lines) at something closer to 20 cents/kWh.  OTEC might someday with very large grazing ships fall in the solar range, but will most probably need to utilize the power far out at sea to generate a shippable fuel, such as ammonia or hydrogen.  

Regarding coal, global warming, if real, will eventually force those generation plants to capture, transport and store carbon dioxide, which should at least double the current costs.  A major carbon tax looms in the not too distant future.  Fukushima, for all practical purposes, killed fission electricity.  Thus, more and more, natural gas from fracking will increase in electrical production because this option cuts carbon emissions by a factor of two compared to coal.  However, if global warming becomes truly serious, this gas option remains a dangerous Greenhouse Effects factor.

So, today, let me compare the winds to our oceans.  To the left is Kaze-no-to, which looks like a fabulous ocean city, but, is actually just a ventilation shaft in Tokyo Bay near Kawasaki.  To the right, a British design combining windpower and OTEC.

Windpower is intermittent and only provides electricity. The waves, currents, tides and salt gradients can also only be converted to electricity.  Ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) supplies baseload electricity and promises a cornucopia of co-products, ranging from freshwater to seafoods to green ch emicals and biofuels.  Plus, there is a good chance that OTEC can enhance the environment by remediating global warming and reducing the formation of hurricanes.  Then, there is the opportunity to establish exciting new habitats on those platforms (one concept to the left) to serve as industrial parks and floating cities, if not maritime countries.  This is the Blue Revolution, with the Pacific International Ocean Station being advanced by Blue Revolution Hawaii as the launching pad to develop the riches of the seas in harmony with the marine environment.

What will be the negative environmental effects from OTEC?  Anytime you do anything today, environmentalists will come out of the woodwork to stymie you.  Many times their criticism is deserving.  Surely to crop up will be the usual suspected effects:  toxic effects (ammonia and biocides), impact on indigenous species, electronic and acoustic interference with whales, the facility will attract fish (which should, actually, be a plus), change the local marine ecosystem (which is true, but, hopefully to create next generation fisheries and establish marine biomass plantations), upset the thermohaline circulation, and there will be more.  Luis Vega (left) has a good article on these effects and everything you should know about OTEC.

Finally, Mark Jacobsen recently reported that there is ten times more wind resources than the amount of electricity produced today.  However, there is so much potential recoverable energy from the seas that reports of several hundred times more, and even a thousand times more OTEC, can be found in the literature.  There are those other marine options too, but I worry about widespread wave energy because, save for a few coastal spots that might be ideally conformed for this technology, you will need to substantively protect the system from storms, which will be very, very expensive.  Thermal gradients and tides are limited, but there is some hope for current power.  My Bruun Memorial Lecture to UNESCO provides details.

So, in summary, we need both.  Wind energy is, with government incentives, cost-effective.  OTEC requires a decade of development, and can become the legacy for any billionaire seeking an opportunity to no less than save Planet Earth and Humanity. If this well endowed individual does not exist, the Blue Revolution could well only become an opportunity in the 22nd Century.  Perhaps the second (Carlos Slim Helu is #1) richest man in the world, Bill Gates (left) shows some potential, for he filed a patent on hurricane prevention.  As a businessman, he must recognize the reality that a hurricane dampening platform will be expensive and economically non-productive.  The Blue Revolution could be the key to his patent.  Maybe it will be Pierre Omidyar (right), for he lives in Hawaii.

It was only appropriate, then, that I had dinner tonight on my roof with two of the most distinguished solar energy pioneers:

From the left, a Hawaiian sunset, Terry Surles (Argonne, California Energy Commission, Sandia, EPRI, PICHTR, Desert Research Institute...), Carl (PG&E) and Gerry Weinberg.  We had a Moet Champagne and a 15.6% Brochelle Zinfandel.

Speaking of Gates and hurricanes, as predicted, Sanba is now a typhoon at 85 MPH, and will strengthen into a Category 4 storm as it steamrolls toward Naha, Okinawa by Saturday.  Then, on to Cheju Island, South Korea by Monday, as a Category 2.  When did Cheju last get hit with a typhoon of this magnitude?


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