Thursday, February 12, 2009

Will OTEC Ever Deliver Lincolnesque Emancipation To Hawaii, USA from their Slavery to Imported Oil?

Enthusiastic lecture attendees had their WWW moment blurred by an inept photographer.

Melodramatic though the headline’s question may be, it does have relevance on the bicentennial of the birth of our 16th president. Some of us have thought ocean thermal energy conversion could be a potential energy game-changer (see our first post) – as dramatic in its own right as the cause for which Lincoln is most remembered and admired.

The emphasis is on “potential,” and thanks to yesterday’s OTEC lecture at the University of Hawaii by Joe Van Ryzin of Makai Ocean Engineering, we have a better appreciation of the challenges facing this technology.

This blog can’t do justice to his hour-long presentation, but we hope to have selected enough highlights to capture the right tone – a balance of sobering reality and encouraging potential.

First, an Encouraging Word

Van Ryzin said the state of Hawaii is at the key pivotal point for OTEC development in the world. He noted that no more fossil fuel power plants will be built in Hawaii according to agreements reached between Hawaiian Electric Company, the State and the Federal DOE. Hawaii will have to rely on renewable energy for the rest of its days.

“You’ve got to look at the difference between OTEC and other renewables,” he said. “OTEC will provide firm power. It’s on 24/7, and if you look to renewables for firm power, OTEC is really it for this island and for a few other islands. So you realize that we might be able to build an OTEC plant for this island, perhaps for Guam, perhaps for Puerto Rico, and provide electricity at an attractive rate today. If so, how do you get there?”

Van Ryzin said if one 100MW plant can be built for Oahu, many could be built – perhaps 10 for Oahu alone. That itself would be a pretty good business, he said, and by then you’d have an assured technology that could be used to create, for example, ammonia and hydrogen for the entire United States if it were to convert to a different energy paradigm.

Van Ryzin’s company has teamed with Lockheed Martin in analyzing how to overcome OTEC’s many challenges. We were left with the firm belief that OTEC still can be the game-changer, especially for Hawaii here in the middle of a tropical ocean that absorbs prodigious amounts of solar energy each day.

$200 Million To Pass GO

But for starters, consider the cost of the first 10MW OTEC plant that presumably would be built in Hawaii to take the concept to the next level. Van Ryzin’s estimate is $200-300 million, and the line of financial backers is short or non-existent. The Federal government may be the only entity in a position to invest the large sums necessary to build Oahu’s “starter plant.” Everything about OTEC is big, he said:

“In trying to build the first OTEC plant, you have to apply all the engineering skills you have and finesse the costs. It’s the chicken and egg. From the technology point of view, you’d like to have it, but it’s pretty expensive. Who’s going to pay for it and how's it going to get done?

“A 100 MW OTEC plant would be economically viable for a location like Oahu. When you look at a 10MW plant, it’s kinda hard to make the business case for that, because things don’t scale down. You can’t build a 10MW plant for one-tenth the cost of a 100MW plant.

“What the real challenge is for OTEC is that we’re out there trying to build the first OTEC plant, trying to build it economically and do it as fast as we can, but you’ve got to apply all the engineering skills, all the knowledge that we have and really finesse the engineering cost.”

The challenges that must be overcome to scale up from 10 to 400 MW plants one day include the design and construction of the heat exchangers; the type of platform (onshore vs. floating, and if floating, the configuration); the size of the cold water pipe (perhaps 9.5 meters in diameter); foul-weather survivability; the design of the dynamic power cable running to the shore; the environmental impacts, and of course, the financing.

Well, yes….the challenges are real and significant, but the nation has a history of setting ambitious goals and achieving them. Between 1957 and 1966, the United States attempted 164 space launches; 101 of them ended in failure, but the country didn’t walk away from the moon shot.

Aiming for 2040

Once those engineering challenges are overcome, and most in the audience of engineers, scientists and academics presumably agree they will be, OTEC’s potential is such that this excruciatingly long approach to the first plant will have been worth the wait.

“If you have OTEC plants floating in some convenient spot producing ammonia and shipping it to shore, you’re already at the point to provide either ammonia or hydrogen to the DOE hydrogen economy of 2040,” Van Ryzin said.

Sequencing the steps to get to that level is not an overwhelming process, he continued, and can be tackled with R&D projects on the technical challenges.

“In order for OTEC to be really important for the United States, it can’t be just OTEC plants for Hawaii. What impact can OTEC have for the entire United States? Could we build enough OTEC plants and put them in an equatorial region and produce either hydrogen or ammonia, transport that to the United States and be able to make it on a large enough scale that it could provide enough fuel for all the light-weight vehicles in the United States?"

That’s an immense undertaking, with perhaps 700 OTEC plants of 400MW size, tankers going back and forth all the time. But Van Ryzin said this could make sense in 30 years when oil no longer is acceptable as a fuel for a variety of reasons – cost, security, the environment.

Van Ryzin had much more to say about OTEC’s potential to eliminate fossil fuel use in Hawaii over the next three decades, thereby preserving our security and treasure and providing a major new source of employment and investment. Listening to his lecture, one understands that like our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, ours is working to solve technical challenges today for the benefit of our children and their children.

It’s always been that way and hopefully always will be. This generation is now poised to fulfill OTEC’s potential more than any other in the past 150 years since the earliest ocean energy theories were proposed. Companies like Makai Ocean Engineering, Lockheed Martin and others that are working on it and deserve our individual and collective support.

Let's hope the new Obama Administration is paying attention.

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