Powering the Blue Economy: Exploring Opportunities for Marine Renewable Energy in Maritime Markets

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Diagram from the Powering the Blue Economy report.

Expanding demand for ocean-derived food, materials, energy, and knowledge is driving rapid growth in the emerging “blue economy." Blue economy industries, such as aquaculture, are moving further offshore to take advantage of the vast scale of the ocean, and moving further offshore requires access to consistent, reliable power untethered to land-based power grids.

Oceanographic research and national security missions increasingly rely on autonomous sensors and unmanned vehicles that need to function with limited human intervention—pushing further offshore and staying on station longer requires new approaches to onboard energy generation, storage, and reliable remote recharging.

Closer to shore, rural coastal and island communities often rely on expensive shipments of fuel and water to meet basic needs. Electricity and water are vulnerable to disruption during periods of bad weather or following natural disasters. Modular energy-water systems that take advantage of abundant local marine energy resources could provide greater energy and water security.

Removing power constraints and addressing the needs of other coastal and ocean energy end users could accelerate growth in the blue economy and create new opportunities for sustained economic development. Marine renewable energy presents a novel and innovative suite of technologies that could help remove some of these constraints.  

A new report funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO), Powering the Blue Economy: Exploring Opportunities for Marine Renewable Energy in Maritime Markets, explores a compelling set of eight blue economy opportunities that could be supported by marine and hydrokinetic technologies. Building on this report, the WPTO is exploring partnerships between the marine renewable energy industry, coastal stakeholders, and blue economy sectors to address two thematic challenges: Power at Sea and Resilient Coastal Communities. This portfolio of work complements and supports other WPTO activities focused on developing low-cost and reliable marine energy systems to provide power to the U.S. electric grid.

Previous Work

On Dec. 5–7, 2017, WPTO hosted the Marine Energy Technologies Forum: Distributed and Alternate Applications. During the forum, attendees discussed new potential applications for marine renewable energy and how emerging technologies capturing wave and tidal power can help meet the energy needs of a range of coastal and marine industries.

Following the Forum, WPTO released a draft report on the outcomes of the forum through a Request for Information to solicit responses from the public about the report. The report detailed the current economic and technical landscapes for 12 maritime markets where applications may exist for marine renewable energy technologies. The report analyzed the following markets: ocean observations, unmanned underwater vehicles/autonomous underwater vehicle charging, data centers, high-cost utility grids, isolated community grids, canal power, aquaculture, algae, seawater desalination, seawater mining, shoreline protection, and disaster relief and recovery.

WPTO collected and reviewed more than 400 comments from stakeholders and integrated the feedback into the final report, Powering the Blue Economy: Exploring Opportunities for Marine Renewable Energy in Maritime Markets. During the integration of the comments into the final report, the chapters were refined and organized into two themes: “Power at Sea” and “Resilient Coastal Communities.” The eight markets explored in the final report are ocean observation, underwater vehicle charging, marine aquaculture, marine algae, seawater mining (power at sea), seawater desalination, coastal resiliency and disaster recovery, and isolated communities (resilient coastal communities). Download the report.

Waves to Water Prize

Consistent access to freshwater is a challenge for many remote or island coastal communities. Seawater intrusion contaminates local freshwater aquifers while high energy costs have traditionally made desalination a costly option only relevant to large, well-capitalized municipal water systems. Wave power could provide a solution to advance water security at a variety of scales—from small modular systems easily deployed following a disruption in water supply, to larger, industrial-scale systems that provide consistent water at the community scale. Technical and market challenges stand in the way of demonstrating this potentially valuable technology. WPTO has announced the Waves to Water prize to accelerate innovation in this area.

Waves to Water challenges innovators to design and validate an easily deployable wave-powered desalination system that will compete with other existing systems. Waves for Water provides innovators a pathway from initial concept, through technical design, to prototype and field test systems that provide clean, abundant drinking water using only waves as their power source. The prize will advance the American wave-powered desalination industry, as well provide new technology options to solve persistent water security challenges.

This prize is a part of DOE’s new Water Security Grand Challenge, which is focused on advancing transformational technology and innovation to meet the global need for secure and affordable water. The prize is aligned with multiple Water Security Grand Challenge goals, including:

  • By 2030, launch desalination technologies that deliver cost-competitive clean water. 
  • By 2030, develop small, modular energy-water systems for urban, rural, tribal, national security, and disaster response settings.

Waves for Water is being launched on the American-Made Challenge platform, which was created to incentivize innovators nationwide to develop technologies and solutions to strength U.S. competitiveness in energy and leverage the nation’s innovation ecosystem to support entrepreneurs.