Robert Cohen/February 1994


Reflections on the status of federal ocean energy R&D in the United States

Since Reagan became President I've done some agonizing, soul-searching, and analysis on what went wrong to account for the dire straits of the federal Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC)/ocean energy program. Thanks to the motivation of giving a seminar at the University of Colorado on the subject, I prepared a few graphics (copies attached) that attempt to present my analysis and get to the heart of these questions. I refer to those graphics in the following analysis.

 The original federal solar energy program, including OTEC, resulted from a 1972 NSF/NASA study on the relative merits of various candidate solar energy options. At that time there was no need for a political constituency for OTEC or any of the other candidate solar energy technology options: In the light of Operation (Energy) Independence, the technical judgment of the technical experts -- as to the likely resource potential, technological viability, and economic viability of each candidate solar energy technology -- sufficed to select promising technologies (including OTEC) in six areas and to embark on the initial U.S. solar energy R&D program.

 In subsequent years there were a few events that complicated matters in the OTEC area: One event was the programmatic emphasis we in the federal solar energy program put -- motivated by Operation Independence -- on deriving a large energy payoff for OTEC, leading to the desire to arrive at floating plants (100 to 500 MWe) capable of generating (and cabling to shore) large amounts of electricity. It turns out that, if we had it to do over again, we would probably have more surely advanced the floating-plant payoff by starting with a 5 MWe land-based plant instead of shooting for a 40 MWe floating prototype that proved to be unattainable. The result of this programmatic emphasis was, I believe, that it inadvertently tended to alienate most of my fellow environmentalists, who had meanwhile embraced Schumacher's "small is beautiful" philosophy.

The small-is-beautiful schism developed within the environmental and solar energy communities in the 70s, and these communities include just the people who are most aware of the OTEC option. Most of the U.S. populace doesn't even know what OTEC is, hence we OTEC advocates have to confront what I call an "awareness gap" on the enclosed viewgraph. According to my analysis, that gap, along with three other gaps I'll define, result in a "constituency gap" for OTEC, thus preventing our countering the negative things that Reagan and then Bush have tried -- and have almost succeeded -- in doing to the federal ocean energy program.

 Some leading environmentalists and energy peopleÐsuch as my friend Bob Williams -- still perceive OTEC as a large, "central-station" option, which they don't like -- compared to dispersed energy options -- because of its possible relationship to electrical utilities. Indeed, Denis Hayes, when he was head of SERI, took a televised pot shot at ocean thermal and solar thermal, calling them both "turkeys". However, as events developed it is turning out that the commercial evolution of OTEC technology will probably be via small ( 5 MWe) land-based plants at island locations in places like Guam, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and in many developing nations, most of which are mainly relying on imported oil to generate their electricity. Some of those early electricity markets will also use OTEC coproducts such as fresh water, coastal cooling, and mariculture, and there will also be the development of OTEC-like "bottoming cycles" to conserve fuel. If they could only be made aware of that scenario -- rather than recalling our development scenario of the 1970s -- one might expect environmentalists to become natural proponents of OTEC, since its development scenario can now be perceived as that of an "appropriate technology". Also, the environmentalists should welcome OTEC as a baseload alternative to nuclear, one that also has the potential (someday) of becoming a major global energy source for supplying hydrogen (and other fuels and energy-intensive products) to dispersed markets.

 Now I'll complete the definition of the various gaps which in my opinion combine to give OTEC a constituency gap among the ocean energy options:

There is a further complication, which is more precisely a form of demonology, to somehow account for why the Reagan and Bush Administrations singled out the ocean energy budget and have tried for the past twelve years (and have almost succeeded) to zero it. Frankly, although I have hesitated to say so in public, I've frequently suspected -- ut am unable to document -- that the U.S. nuclear establishment (as reflected in the negative bias of the Reagan and Bush Administrations toward OTEC) opposes an active U.S. program to develop OTEC, a perceivable baseload alternative to nuclear. Note the parallelism of the enclosed articles regarding the British wave energy programme to a possible U.S. conspiracy against developing OTEC technology. The article from The Ecologist documents allegations that the British nuclear lobby opposed British funding of R&D on the renewables.

Indeed, in at least one of his writings, Alvin Weinberg recognizes OTEC as the major potential competitor of nuclear when it comes to the really large global energy sources. Also, I've sensed a subjective antagonism toward OTEC technology on the part of many (but not all) nuclear energy people I've encountered, consistent with there being a possible covert conspiracy against funding OTEC. In any event, I know of no valid rationale as to why the Reagan and Bush Administrations tried to zero the ocean energy program, considering that OTEC is potentially one of only several energy sources that have the potential for ultimately supplying a substantial fraction of global energy needs. Accordingly, I think it is important that the United States proceed on an R&D path to explore OTEC viability and reduce the costs of OTEC technology as rapidly as possible so as to improve and hasten its commercial prospects. Following the expenditure on OTEC R&D of about a quarter of a billion dollars, I see no demonstrable technological show-stoppers so far, and so far OTEC technology looks like it will be economic for certain markets (defined above) in the relatively near term and has good prospects for becoming economic in the longer-term markets.

 So, where are we and where do we go from here? The federal ocean energy program is hanging by a thread. In 1992 I testified before the relevant House committee to no avail. In fiscal years 1993 and 1994, that program has not quite been "cancelled", but there is still a budget of about $1 million, thanks to lobbying by the Hawaiian delegation. Unfortunately, we didn't get our ocean energy program-revitalization message across to the Clinton Administration, whichÐas I understand itÐin the renewables area simply adopted the FY 1994 budget request formulated by the Bush Administration. In one attempt to influence the course of events, in July 1993 I sent a fax message (copy enclosed) to the Secretary of Energy. I received only a perfunctory reply from a subaltern, and the unswayed Clinton Administration again requested zero funding for the ocean energy program in its FY 1995 budget request. That request is currently pending and being acted upon in Congress. Presumably the Hawaiian delegation will again try to get a million dollars or so into the budget that finally emerges. I hope so, since it will be a lot easier to revitalize an existing program than to have to restart it once it gets zeroed.

In contrast to the foregoing, it is encouraging that -- in the absence of a significant federal OTEC R&D program -- some things are happening independently. Through a 1983 consulting contract, I helped Alcan Aluminium Limited (headquartered in Montreal) get up to speed on OTEC. Since then - without any outside support -- Alcan has performed 5 years of research leading to a low-cost aluminum alloy (3003) that withstands seawater corrosion and has developed inexpensive roll bonded OTEC heat exchangers that can be fabricated at low costs per kilowatt. Furthermore, Alcan and GEC-Marconi have been successfully demonstrating those exchangers in an OTEC-related bottoming cycle used in connection with a coal-fueled power plant in England. They are presently planning to build a small OTEC plant using those exchangers in Hawaii, and are contemplating a larger bottoming-cycle plant to be operated in conjunction with a nuclear plant of Ontario Hydro. Also, the Taiwanese are studying a serious OTEC development program and there are conceptual prototype design studies being conducted for the Marshall and Grand Cayman Islands.