When you think about the need for energy, you probably think about powering your home, car, and electronics—tangible things that you see or use every day. But did you know that many Americans also need energy while out at sea? And that those needs could be fulfilled by the ocean itself?
Expanding demand for ocean-derived food, materials, energy, and knowledge is driving rapid growth in the emerging “blue economy.” The blue economy represents the interplay between economic, social, and ecological sustainability of the ocean. This interest is fueling investment in next-generation maritime or “blue” technologies. Given the tremendous value of the ocean, our ability to contribute to the blue economy sustainably has important implications with a wide range of societal and environmental benefits.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Energy's Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO) published the report, Powering the Blue Economy™: Exploring Opportunities for Marine Renewable Energy in Maritime Markets, highlighting potential markets for marine energy technologies beyond the national grid, including applications where marine energy provides advantages and solutions to energy limitations.
The list below highlights some marine energy applications that could directly support the blue economy:
- Marine Transportation: Powering Boats and Aircraft: Similar to providing energy to a storage system for charging underwater vehicles, marine energy could provide energy to charging stations for electric boats and aircraft. Opportunities could exist off grid, such as charging stations in remote terrestrial locations or locations without grid accessibility, or at sea for craft (e.g., moored, station kept, or floating unmoored) to use to recharge and extend ranges.
- Off-Grid Small Device Consumer and Industrial Charging: Charging of small electronic devices from river and other water currents may be a small subset of the off-grid personal charging sector. A cheap, easily deployed, marine renewable energy charger would likely be useful to hikers, recreational boaters, and off-grid coastal communities. It could also have potential application for survival craft, such as lifeboats and life rafts, that have limited available sources of energy.
- Ocean Pollution Cleanup and Marine Conservation: Globally, the world’s oceans are in need of the development of technologies to efficiently remove marine debris and contaminants from seawater, given their pervasive and destructive nature, and to otherwise aid in marine conservation efforts. Potential markets for the application of marine renewable energy technologies to marine conservation include ocean pollution cleanup, oil spill cleanup, and coral reef restoration.
- Offshore Communications: An expansive network of underwater communications infrastructure plays a critical role in global data transmission. This network comprises submarine communications cables, laid on the seabed between land-based stations, that carry telecommunication signals across the oceans. Underwater communication networks of both fiber-optic cables and acoustic modems play a critical role in various sectors, including global telecommunications, the energy industry, defense operations, and ocean observing. Proposals to couple environmental sensors into submarine cables for ocean and climate monitoring and early disaster warning represent an application that would require additional power sources. As these communication networks continue to develop, and environmental monitoring networks are integrated, there may be an opportunity for marine renewable energy to power these systems.
- Offshore Data Centers: The explosion of cloud computing and internet-based content—from movie streaming to cryptocurrency mining—has created significant growth and evolution in the build-out of server centers. These servers have a tremendous electricity demand; in the United States alone this demand represents 70 terawatt-hours per year, or almost 2% of total U.S. electricity consumption in 2014 (Shehabi et al. 2016). As the costs and reliability of marine energy technologies continue to improve, they have the potential to provide local, renewable power to shore- and sea-based data centers, reduce cooling electrical loads, and share infrastructure and installation and operation and maintenance efforts.
These different applications cover a range of technology readiness levels, from those that are in the conceptual-only stage to others with demonstrated pilot projects and paths to commercialization. To learn more about these specific applications, read Chapter 10: Other Applications of the Powering the Blue Economy report.