Dr. Luis Vega, director of the National Marine Renewable Energy Center at the University of Hawaii and a long-time OTEC promoter, hosted today’s informal two-hour conversation among OTEC advocates. The visitors were Kerry Kehoe, Don MacDonald and Whitney Blanchard of NOAA’s Office of Coastal and Resource Management, which will be responsible for issuing licenses and permits for OTEC plants and operations.
Vega’s emailed invitation to UH researchers, state and federal agencies, energy industry consultants and engineers, OTEC promoters and others said the team is here to “gather information required to assess the technological readiness of OTEC for commercial deployment…. They also want to develop information that could be used for laying a foundation for an OTEC development roadmap that could provide guidance for federal, industry and academia investments.”
A certain amount of exasperation was present in the room, since many participants had thought two or three decades ago that they were following such a roadmap. Funds for a 40-megawatt OTEC plant had even been included in the federal budget in the early 1980s until President Reagan killed the program. Participants made it clear they believe financing, not technology, is still the impediment to commercialization and even the initial demonstration plant.
A Serious Effort
Kehoe said in opening remarks that NOAA believes the serious efforts underway by industry to bring OTEC to commercialization deserve a serious response by NOAA. Noting that the U.S. Navy is moving ahead aggressively with OTEC, he said “the last thing NOAA wants is to be behind everybody else.”
He said a regulatory gap exists for OTEC and that a “demonstration plant” isn’t even defined in existing regulations. NOAA would have a predicament if an OTEC demonstration plant applied for licensing. Kehoe said as many as 10 federal agencies have a role in authorizing the first OTEC demonstration plant.
“When people in these agencies hear about this technology, they tend to be shell-shocked,” Kehoe said, explaining that OTEC issues are arriving on desks that already are piled high with other work. “OTEC is on a scale so much larger than anything we’ve dealt with before,” he said. Others noted that a large OTEC plant will require the vertical movement of huge rivers of water – a realization that contributes to the shock.
A Coast Guard representative said public buy-in will be critical to achieving OTEC commercialization. He said “the public relations people have a job cut out for them” because of the anticipated high cost of OTEC commercialization and public perceptions of potential environmental impact. But others said they believe Hawaii residents have a good understanding about the need to reduce the state’s debilitating dependence on oil for 90 percent of its energy.
Some participants said so much data has been accumulated about potential OTEC plant sites in Hawaiian waters that writing an acceptable environmental Impact statement isn’t as daunting as it might appear. A pilot plant could be built using that wealth of information, they said, and future commercial plants would use lessons learned from that first small starter plant.
Expanding the Brain Power
Kehoe said the recent meeting at the University of New Hampshire (linked above) on the readiness of commercial scale development concluded that “no existing paradigm to fund OTEC will work.” He said the same amount of brainpower is required in the room to work on the financial side as exists on the technical side.
Kehoe also suggested that initial OTEC plants won’t be built with federal funding because of the high risk, but others noted that the federal government had funded the country’s first nuclear power plant, and the same may be needed to launch the OTEC technology. It wouldn’t be unreasonable, they said, for the federal government to fund the 10-MW demonstration plant.
The NOAA team’s meetings in Hawaii “have brought home how much our learning curve has to be based on what’s happening here in Hawaii,” Kehoe said, adding that he believes Hawaii will be the site for the first OTEC demonstration plant. That first plant therefore will be tailored to the issues that will emerge regarding OTEC here.
Kehoe concluded the session with an assessment that pleased the local audience: “If I were a Las Vegas odds maker, I’d say the odds are better than 50 percent that the first OTEC pilot plant will be built in Hawaii – and the first commercial plant, too.”