To mark World Oceans Day on June 8 and National Ocean Month in June, three experts from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO) discuss why they love the ocean and how this massive body is key to fighting climate change.
June is National Ocean Month, and some people might be asking: “Why should I care about the ocean?” What are your thoughts?
Beth Hartman, Strategic Innovation and Outreach Program Manager: Aside from the fact that the ocean is beautiful and supports many diverse and incredible forms of life, it also provides a lot of our food, captures a lot of heat and carbon dioxide, and we all rely on international shipping to get many of our goods.
Carrie Schmaus, Marine Energy Technology Manager: The ocean plays a huge role in climate regulation and generates most of the oxygen we breathe, and even people who don’t live by the ocean still enjoy things like sushi and crab. But beyond that, the ocean is a source of inspiration and wonder, which is also incredibly valuable.
Tim Ramsey, Marine Energy Program Manager: The most obvious answer is the ocean could provide significant energy to the grid. It could help meet our ambitious goals to achieve a 100% clean energy grid and net-zero-carbon economy. It’s going to take a diverse energy mix to get all the way to 100%. That last 10% is going to be really hard to do, and marine renewable energy has a lot of inherent advantages.
Like what? What are some of the benefits of marine energy?
Tim: Marine energy is a 24/7 resource. It’s highly predictable, especially when you’re talking about tides. Tides are very, very predictable.
Beth: We can get energy from waves, tides, or ocean and river currents. And then we can also get energy from different gradients in the ocean—whether that’s differences in temperature with thermal gradients or salinity or pressure. According to a study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the size of the marine energy resource in the United States is equivalent to almost 60% of electricity generated in the entire country in a year. Even if we harness only a portion of that power, there is a huge, almost unlimited resource there.
Tell us more about this immense resource: How could the ocean itself help us achieve a stable climate, good jobs, healthy economies, or an equitable and just society?
Carrie: A large proportion of our population lives in coastal areas, and a number of those folks are in an elevated coastal hazard risk category. So, when we're thinking about healthy economies and equity and environmental justice, the ocean must be part of that conversation. Jobs in tourism, but also fishing and other ocean-related industries, are available to folks who live on the coast. And if we do ocean energy right, those jobs can also provide people with a good source of income and a sustainable source of energy.
Beth: Marine energy also gives a lot of small, remote, rural communities the opportunity to diversify their clean energy mix and improve resilience.
Tim: Some coastal and remote communities are hard to get to, especially in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Transmission lines don’t always make it out to those remote communities. And if they do, it can be expensive or, in some cases, unreliable. A lot of times, they’re bringing in diesel to meet their energy needs. So, having a clean energy resource, like marine energy, that’s right next to those remote communities is a nice inherent benefit.
Are there other applications for marine energy people should be aware of?
Beth: We can use these technologies to create electrons, but also for many other applications such as to observe and monitor the ocean. Our Waves to Water Prize demonstrated that a device powered by ocean waves can also produce clean drinking water, which is good for remote communities and disaster response and recovery situations. In addition, ocean energy can help provide power for aquaculture farms and even for marine carbon dioxide removal, which I think is super exciting.
Carrie: Marine carbon dioxide removal (also referred to as ocean carbon dioxide removal) is going to be extremely important in climate change mitigation efforts! The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said they have high confidence that, to avoid extremely negative effects of climate change, we need negative-emission technologies. These technologies remove carbon dioxide from the air or water and should be deployed in conjunction with clean energy technologies. The ocean is our largest carbon sink, and ocean energy can be used to power carbon removal.
Tim: There’s so much going on out in the ocean, and almost all of it needs energy. Marine energy is already naturally co-located with those activities. So, if we could basically provide unlimited power to underwater vehicles and other systems that monitor and operate in the ocean, it’s kind of a multiplier effect. It reduces the overall carbon footprint of these activities, removes the need for humans to intervene to swap out batteries, for example, and really opens the doors to what you can do out in the ocean.
How far away are we from achieving that kind of unlimited power with ocean energy?
Tim: WPTO’s Marine Energy Program and the U.S. Department of Energy more broadly are supporting a lot of research to improve the performance of devices and reduce costs. Right now, we can definitely pull energy out of the ocean. That's been done time and time again. The trick is to do it in a cost-competitive manner and create robust materials and devices that can withstand salt water and other corrosive forces.
Carrie: Ocean energy is going to be huge, so we need to make sure that all our efforts lead to a net benefit for the environment and our society. It’s possible if we do it right.
Beth: The White House’s Ocean Climate Action Plan does a great job of segmenting our ocean plan into three main buckets: stop the emissions, remove the emissions, and then enhance resilience of communities near the ocean, which is going to be super important. As the damaging effects of climate change continue to increase, there will be a greater need to build resilience of electricity grids, too, with microgrids that could include marine energy as well as desalinization and other solutions that can help communities adapt and thrive.
Obviously, the ocean is a big part of your daily work. What does it mean to you personally?
Tim: I’m a Pisces, so I’ve always loved the ocean. I grew up in Pennsylvania, and we would go to the ocean multiple times a year. I loved being in the surf. Now, I live in the mountains in Colorado, but I’m always on the water stand-up paddle boarding, swimming, skipping rocks with my kids. I also see water and the ocean as life and an asset for humanity. If we can take advantage of it in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way, that’s a huge resource we can use to improve our lives.
Beth: Being from Colorado, the ocean for me is very much about vacation and adventure. I have a lot of memories of my kids playing in the gentle waves in Mexico. My stepmom’s family is from Tasmania, and that is a much wilder ocean. The ocean can be this very peaceful, tropical, beautiful Caribbean holiday, or it can be full of penguins and seals and quite cold, powerful waves.
Carrie: I live on the East Coast and work in ocean energy, so I think about the ocean every day. Thinking about how I got here, though, I realized that my life looks the way it does because I care about the ocean. Reflecting on this, I remember a beach vacation my family took when I was about 7 years old. There were all these jellyfish washed up on the sand. Now, as an adult, I realize they were probably dead, but as a 7-year-old, I thought maybe they just needed to be put back in the water. After getting over my fear of these squishy, alien discs (and after my dad checked they wouldn’t sting me), I spent the afternoon picking them up and throwing them back into the surf. To this day, I still wonder what ecological event caused these jellyfish to wash up. Whatever it was, something in my 7-year-old self wanted to do something. I had a feeling that one person does matter, one person can do something.
Are you optimistic that we can address the challenges the ocean—and the planet—face today?
Carrie: For me, that’s a resounding yes. To lose optimism is to lose hope. We have to be realistic about this dire situation that we’re in, but we also have to believe in and work toward something better.
Beth: Christiana Figueres, a climate change leader from Costa Rica and former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, has an expression that I really like, which is “stubborn optimism.” You have to continue being optimistic even in the face of continued challenges. But I also think it’s not really a question of being optimistic or pessimistic. It’s a question of urgent necessity. Focusing too much on the problem drives people to despair. And that’s the same as denial. It leads to inaction. We need action, action, action.
Tim: The question is, do we have the wherewithal and the dedication to address these challenges? I don’t want to say it’s kind of a moon shot, but, like getting a person to the moon, it’s going to be an all-in effort as a country, as humans. We need to band together and collectively solve this challenge, and if we’re willing to do that, then yes, I don’t doubt we'll be able to solve it.
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