29 May 2010

OTEC now!

My late father, a rocket scientist (literally) and chemical engineer, I recall was rather negative about the prospects for OTEC (Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion) technology. This technology basically uses giant ammonia refrigerator-in-reverse technology to generate electricity in subtropical and tropical waters. A great deal of research was done on this in the 1970s, but Pres. Reagan killed it. Now, it appears, thanks, ironically enough, to significant advances in floating platform technology from the offshore oil industry, Lockheed Martin and the DOD have taken enough of an interest in it to develop a pilot plant in Hawaii, which should be online by 2014.  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ocean_thermal_energy_conversion  Lockheed Martin also has a website on OTEC.

The feasibility is now thought to be "near-economic" meaning that some subsidy will be required to develop the technology further, then it should be pay-go. It only works in subtropical waters (warm surface, freezing at depth), which is found all over the world from +20 to -20 deg. lat. Notably, the subsidies to build even large 100 MW plants would be significantly less than the subsidies contemplated to build new nuclear plants, especially if you consider the ultimate costs of waste disposal and liability caps for any accidents. OTEC is pretty benign: you could have platform accidents, but nothing comparable to oil spills, and certainly nothing comparable to the environmental depradation of a Chernobyl, is remotely possible. If something goes wrong, you could have a local explosion (as in any power plant or refinery), but the longterm effect would just be that the plant stops working and has to be repaired.

This could mean totally nonpolluting power plants for tropical island countries now reliant on expensive imported diesel, plus countries like Indonesia and India, even Northern Australia, Mexico, Central America, Africa, Brazil,
Thailand, Vietnam, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, even a post-oil Arabia, etc., could have near offshore power plants that don't use any fuel. It's possible it could be made to work off(f Florida and Texas, because the Gulf of Mexico is warmer further north than most places in the world. (The West Coast of the Americas, which have cold currents, are less suitable).

But the other great potential is factory platforms that don't even need to be near land. These could manufacture hydrogen or Ammonia,
to be used as fuel, or even making carbon based fuels out of atmospheric CO2 (which is net CO2 neutral, of course); Ammonia to be used as fertilizer, or, by bringing in raw materials, any number of products, including even smelting aluminum, out on the surface of the sea, and using what amounts to solar power.

It seems to me that the Obama administration is in danger of missing a huge opportunity to use the current environmental disaster as a teachable moment, and a moment in which the opportunity to seize the initiative and sell to the American people the concept that we need to make not modest but HUGE investments, and immediately, to develop this and other "off oil now" technologies, for the energy and environmental security of our country.

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