The Coming of OTEC

There is a renewable energy option that might have been first dreamt 138 years ago by Jules Verne in his Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) features sustainable baseload power -- meaning it is continuously available, as differentiated from solar and wind energy, which are intermittent -- and is so vast that tapping less than one-tenth of one percent of this stored energy in the ocean (which would be continuously replenished if utilized) would supply more than 4 times the total amount of electricity consumed in the World. Initially proposed in 1881 by Jacques d'Arsonval, a French engineer, his student Georges Claude (who also invented the neon tube, but was later sentenced to life in prison for being be a Nazi collaborator) failed in the 1930's off Cuba to prove the concept. Finally, Lockheed, off Keahole Point on the Big Island of Hawaii, first produced net positive power in 1979.

I just happened to be working for Senator Matsunaga in D.C. that day, so helped draft the first OTEC bill, which was almost immediately passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Jimmy Carter. We might have been overly optimistic, but the legislation predicted that 10,000 MW of OTEC power would be in operation by 1999. For the record, this total is today zero.

In 1981, a Japanese consortium led by Tokyo Electric Power Company succeeded in feeding to the Nauru grid 120 kW of closed cycle OTEC power. Toshiba produced two 10 minute clips, Part I which can be viewed through You Tube. You can then click on Part 2. Unfortunately, a hurricane wiped out the facility. I have annual dinners with the group to re-live these incidents, and there were many.

Well, I returned to Hawaii in 1982 and helped invent the Pacific International Center for High Technology Research (PICHTR), suggested by Senator Matsunaga and named by then Governor of Hawaii George Ariyoshia. My engineering team at PICHTR, through funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and Japan, succeeded with a 255 kw (gross) open cycle OTEC facility at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii on the Big Island, also providing freshwater.

India, aided by Saga University of Japan, made a 1 MW attempt in 2006, but had cold water pipe problems. Otherwise, most of the notoriety with the technology has been associated with mere announcements of projects on Diego Garcia (Department of Defense), various Pacific Islands (Department of Interior and Japan) and the Caribbean (Solar Sea Power), never attaining fruition. A current summary of the growing field can be found in NewScientist.

Now, however, Hawaii has again gained the spotlight with an announcement that Lockheed Martin, with the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) of Taiwan, is designing and will build a 10 MW OTEC facility, most probably to feed electricity and freshwater to Honolulu. Doug Carlson has an OTEC blog providing details. How things come back full circle, for it was 20 years ago that Paul Yuen, PICHTR president, and my engineering team worked with ITRI on an $80 million multiple product OTEC facility proposal.

Perhaps now the Blue Revolution (Chapter 4 of SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Planet Earth -- see box on the right) has finally begun, with promise for renewable energy, green materials, exciting habitats, marine biomass plantations, next generation fisheries and, maybe, remediation of global warming and prevention of hurricane formation.