Clean Power Tidal power system by Ocean Renewable Power Company

Published on August 30th, 2013 | by Tina Casey


US Taps Into 1400 Terawatt Hours Of Clean Ocean Power

August 30th, 2013 by  

As the US offshore wind power industry slowly (very slowly) cranks up to speed, let’s not forget that US coastal waters also represent a huge, as-yet-untapped energy resource in the form of waves, tides and currents. The Department of Energy estimates the total could come up to 1400 terawatt hours of electricity per year, enough to power millions of homes. The problem is getting the private sector to take the plunge into uncharted technological waters, and to that end DOE has just announced a new round of $16 million funding, including public-private partnerships, to help kick things into gear.

The money will go to 17 projects that cover efficiency improvements in wave and tidal generators as well as data collection and environmental surveys.

More And Better Tidal and Wave Power

Descriptions of the 17 projects are available here, and since the recipients include a couple of companies that CleanTechnica has been following let’s focus on those.

Ocean Renewable Power Company laid claim to launching the first grid-connected commercial tidal energy project in the US last year, called TideGen. The company will get $1.93 million to develop an advanced control system that will predict tidal conditions, with the goal of improving turbine performance when tidal conditions are extremely rough and less than optimal.

Tidal power system by Ocean Renewable Power Company

Tidal power system courtesy of ORPC.

The company will get another $3 million to develop advanced components for wave, tidal and current generators, to measure performance, and to assess how these components can be incorporated into existing technology.

Ocean Power Technologies has been working extensively with the US Navy on a buoy-based wave power system called PowerBuoy, and it will get $1 million to redesign the float for the device, as well as its spar (the cylindrical body encapsulating the device). The goal is to improve efficiency and reduce production costs by cutting down on float and spar mass, which together account for about half the total mass of the PowerBuoy.

Speaking of the Navy, though Ocean Renewable Energy can lay claim to the first commercial grid connection for tidal power, it looks like the Navy and Ocean Power nailed wave power grid connection back in 2010, at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, in Oahu.

The Navy has also been ramping up facilities at its existing wave power test bed in Hawaii with the goal of providing an up-to-date shared R&D platform for private sector wave power developers.

More Power, Less Impact

A significant chunk of the new round of funding will go to assess impacts on marine life. The Electric Power Research Institute, for example, will get $300,000 to assess the potential impact of undersea electromagnetic fields  from transmission lines, and the University of Washington will get $400,000 to assess the impact of noise from tidal devices specifically on marine mammals including killer whales, porpoises and seals.

Another notable project comes under Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which will get $95,000 to study the impact of tidal turbines on fish populations, based on the operation of an existing tidal power project in New York City by the company Verdant Power. The goal is to develop assessment tools that can be used at other tidal and riverine sites.

Don’t Forget The Inland Waterways!

This round of funding focuses mainly on wave and tidal power along US coasts, but the Obama Administration has also been looking to tap America’s inland waterways as a significant source of low-impact renewable energy. That includes modifying existing dams to extract more power as well as developing hydrokinetic devices that generate power from ambient currents rather than requiring new dam construction.

To help accelerate the private hydrokinetic sector, the Obama Administration is also funding a new shared research and development facility called RiverSphere at Tulane University in Louisiana.

Yet Another Nail In The Keystone XL Coffin

If there is one dead horse worth beating it’s the notorious Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline proposal, which advocates have touted as an essential job-creating machine even though it will only account for a few dozen permanent positions in the US, virtually none of which involve innovative technology.

Contrast that with all of the current and potential activity surrounding wave, tidal and current energy development in the US, and the job-creating pitch disappears in a puff of smoke.

The pipeline also creates new risks to hundreds of waterways along its route from Canadian tar sands fields to Texas refineries without adding a drop to the domestic energy market (it’s an export project, after all), so in effect US consumers bear all the risk and none of the benefits from this energy project — again, compared to marine and riverine power development, which can tie directly into local grids.

With the US investing billions in both private and public sector dollars for new clean technology designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it’s also worth noting that fossil fuel projects like Keystone essentially nullify those efforts, which the Sierra Club and several other environmental heavy-hitters hope to demonstrate once and for all in a new report on the global warming impact of Keystone.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • JamesWimberley

    Waves are everywhere in the ocean, but they are very hard to tap reliably. British technologists have been workin at it for decades, without a commercial demonstration to show for it. The ocean surface ia a nightmarishly hostile environment for machinery: constant mechanical shocks, salt spray, and oxygen. The machinery just breaks down.

    Tides are better because in open waters you can submerge the equipment entirely, or put it in barrages round lagoons or across estuaries where you can get at it easily for maintenance. The tidal barrage on the Rance in Brittany has been working since 1966. But there are only a limited number of good tidal sites.

    • RobS

      Limited number of sites is no issue, don’t need it to supply all the power needed, just one part of a diverse suite of renewable generators; solar, wind, hydro, tide, wave, geothermal, biomass, biogas. Add them all together and suddenly their output is not so ntermittent anymore with the on demand nes like biomass, biogas and hydro able to fill the gaps and geothermal providing a background of steady base load.

      • agelbert

        Also important is the fact that the power potential of those ocean currents running undersea turbines is located less than 20 miles from the largest population centers on the planet (coastal cities) so transmission losses would be minimal.
        At least on the east coast of the USA, I am certain that the gulf stream current can provide several multiples of our present power demands (including 100% EV transportation and trucking) 24/7, but I agree that a mix of several renewable energy sources is the best option to provide a robust system where somebody will always have power to help someone else in the event of a large storm or natural catastrophe.

  • jburt56

    Deep ocean currents are baseload power.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Are you sure deep ocean currents are really deep?

      I checked a bit on Gulf Stream flow. From what I found most of the movement is closer to the surface.

      There’s a tremendous amount of energy flowing between Mexico and Cuba and then on up along the coast of Florida, but it might take turbines mounted on barges to harvest it.

      • jburt56

        Bet we could build it for less than a war with Syria!!

        • Bob_Wallace

          The relevant question is whether we could build ocean current generation cheap than other sources such as wind + stored wind.

          Always on, “baseload” generation sounds enticing but it isn’t necessarily the most affordable solution. Look how “baseload” nuclear is going bankrupt in the US. Look how coal is closing in Germany and Australia.

          • RobS

            Base load is the past, the future value will be in despatchable power sources capable of being ramped up and down rapidly in response to both supply and demand fluctuations. Storage can fill this role and demand response can negate the need for into a degree by making demand match supply rather then the other way around. However several generation sources including hydro, biomass, biogas, and even geothermal depending on the design can also act as peak load generators.

          • agelbert

            Well said. Don’t forget compressed air as peak load generators too.
            In distributed power systems I can envision people having for heating, instead of heating oil or kerosene tanks, some compressed air tanks used to power heating systems at night or simply be available as an emergency power plant (without combustion poisons).
            The advantage of compressed air is that, as long as you have a properly and safely designed storage system, you have a “battery” that can be recharged without loss of efficiency..

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