A process called ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) uses the heat energy stored in the Earth's oceans to generate electricity.
OTEC works best when the temperature difference between the warmer, top layer of the ocean and the colder, deep ocean water is about 36°F (20°C). These conditions exist in tropical coastal areas, roughly between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer. To bring the cold water to the surface, ocean thermal energy conversion plants require an expensive, large-diameter intake pipe, which is submerged a mile or more into the ocean's depths.
Some energy experts believe that if ocean thermal energy conversion can become cost-competitive with conventional power technologies, it could be used to produce billions of watts of electrical power.
OTEC technology is not new. In 1881, Jacques Arsene d'Arsonval, a French physicist, proposed tapping the thermal energy of the ocean. But it was d'Arsonval's student, Georges Claude, who in 1930 built the first OTEC plant in Cuba. The system produced 22 kilowatts of electricity with a low-pressure turbine. In 1935, Claude constructed another plant aboard a 10,000-ton cargo vessel moored off the coast of Brazil. However, weather and waves destroyed both plants before they became net power generators. (Net power is the amount of power generated after subtracting power needed to run the system.)
In 1956, French scientists designed another 3-megawatt OTEC plant for Abidjan, Ivory Coast, West Africa. The plant was never completed, however, because it was too expensive.
The United States became involved in OTEC research in 1974 with the establishment of the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority. The laboratory has become one of the world's leading test facilities for OTEC technology.
Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion Technologies
There are three kinds of OTEC systems: closed-cycle, open-cycle, and hybrid.
Closed-cycle systems use fluids with a low boiling point, such as ammonia, to rotate a turbine to generate electricity. Warm surface seawater is pumped through a heat exchanger, where the low-boiling-point fluid is vaporized. The expanding vapor turns the turbo-generator. Cold deep seawater—which is pumped through a second heat exchanger—then condenses the vapor back into a liquid that is then recycled through the system.
In 1979, the Natural Energy Laboratory and several private-sector partners developed the mini OTEC experiment, which achieved the first successful at-sea production of net electrical power from closed-cycle OTEC. The mini OTEC vessel was moored 1.5 miles (2.4 km) off the Hawaiian coast and produced enough net electricity to illuminate the ship's light bulbs and run its computers and televisions.
In 1999, the Natural Energy Laboratory tested a 250-kW pilot OTEC closed-cycle plant, the largest such plant ever put into operation.
Open-cycle systems use the tropical oceans' warm surface water to make electricity. When warm seawater is placed in a low-pressure container, it boils. The expanding steam drives a low-pressure turbine attached to an electrical generator. The steam, which has left its salt behind in the low-pressure container, is almost pure, fresh water. It is condensed back into a liquid by exposure to cold temperatures from deep-ocean water.
In 1984, the Solar Energy Research Institute (now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory) developed a vertical-spout evaporator to convert warm seawater into low-pressure steam for open-cycle plants. Energy conversion efficiencies as high as 97% were achieved. In May 1993, an open-cycle OTEC plant at Keahole Point, Hawaii, produced 50,000 watts of electricity during a net power-producing experiment.
Hybrid systems combine the features of closed- and open-cycle systems. In a hybrid system, warm seawater enters a vacuum chamber, where it is flash-evaporated into steam, similar to the open-cycle evaporation process. The steam vaporizes a low-boiling-point fluid (in a closed-cycle loop) that drives a turbine to produce electricity.
OTEC has potential benefits beyond power production. For example, spent cold seawater from an OTEC plant can chill fresh water in a heat exchanger or flow directly into a cooling system. Simple systems of this type have air-conditioned buildings at the Natural Energy Laboratory for several years.
OTEC technology also supports chilled-soil agriculture. When cold seawater flows through underground pipes, it chills the surrounding soil. The temperature difference between plant roots in the cool soil and plant leaves in the warm air allows many plants that evolved in temperate climates to be grown in the subtropics. The Natural Energy Laboratory maintains a demonstration garden near its OTEC plant with more than 100 fruits and vegetables, many of which would not normally survive in Hawaii.
Aquaculture is perhaps the most well-known byproduct of OTEC. Cold-water delicacies, such as salmon and lobster, thrive in the nutrient-rich, deep seawater culled from the OTEC process. Microalgae such as Spirulina, a health food supplement, also can be cultivated in the deep-ocean water.
Finally, an advantage of open or hybrid-cycle OTEC plants is the production of fresh water from seawater. Theoretically, an OTEC plant that generates 2 megawatts of net electricity could produce about 14,118.3 cubic feet (4,300 cubic meters) of desalinated water each day.
Environmental and Economic Challenges
In general, careful site selection is key to keeping the environmental effects of OTEC minimal. OTEC experts believe that appropriate spacing of plants throughout tropical oceans can nearly eliminate any potential negative effects on ocean temperatures and marine life.
OTEC power plants require substantial capital investment upfront. OTEC researchers believe private sector firms probably will be unwilling to make the enormous initial investment required to build large-scale plants until the price of fossil fuels increases dramatically or national governments provide financial incentives. Another factor hindering the commercialization of OTEC is that there are only a few hundred land-based sites in the tropics where deep-ocean water is close enough to shore to make OTEC plants feasible.