Shutdown Or Not, US Bets $25 Million On Next-Generation Marine Energy

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Shutdown, schmutdown! The US Department of Energy has been busy over there in the catbird seat all during President* Trump’s shutdown debacle. Somehow the agency managed to secure its budget back in September. This whole time while other agencies have gone dark, DOE has been firing away on all pistons — including a series of pitches for renewable energy. In the latest development, this week DOE announced another $25 million in funding for advanced marine energy projects.

In a not so surprising coincidence, the new renewable energy funding announcement came down just when news surfaced of yet another coal power plant closing. MAGA!

“All Of The Above” Still Works

Renewable energy fans were not particularly thrilled when President Obama adopted an “all of the above” energy strategy, which embraced natural gas and petroleum as well as nuclear power.

Nevertheless, wind and solar energy made great strides during his administration, while coal began to sink. Pretty much the same dynamic is under way during the Trump administration.

For all of Trump’s pro-coal bluster, “all of the above” is still the operative word, coal is still on the way out, and DOE is still committed to a policy of progress on renewables (and natural gas is still a whole ‘nother can of worms).

In a press release for the new $25 million round of funding, current Under Secretary of Energy Mark Menezes waxed fondly on the topic of marine energy (emphasis added):

Advancing next-generation marine energy will help the U.S. ensure a secure, reliable, and enduring supply of American energy. These early-stage research and development projects are key to the development of water power as part of DOE’s ‘all-of-the-above’ energy strategy.”

Thanks, Obama!

According to DOE’s latest take on the subject of marine energy, it has the potential to “provide reliable power at grid scale, expand the resilience of our nation’s energy systems, provide economic development opportunities, and revitalize coastal and port infrastructure.”

So, who needs fossil fuels?

$25 Million More For Marine Energy

Who, indeed? A new estimate on US carbon emissions raises serious concerns about backsliding on climate action, but keep in mind that so far, the US only been tapping into its land-based wind and solar resources.

The US also has vast offshore wind resources that are ripe for the plucking. In the offshore wind sector, efforts to launch the industry mostly stalled out during the Obama administration. Ironically enough, offshore wind leases have begun moving at a rapid clip during the Trump years.

Similarly, the long coasts of the US are lined with opportunities for tapping ocean waves, tides, and currents for renewable energy. DOE is still avidly pursuing that avenue regardless of what Trump says about saving coal jobs.

Though marine energy technology has a lot of catching up to do, the next few years of R&D could set up the industry for a leap into the mainstream. The Obama administration poured some big bucks into wave and tidal R&D. The new $25 million round of funding appears to be the largest single round yet.

The potential payoff is a big one. Back in 2013 DOE ran the numbers and came up with this finding:

…The Department’s latest nationwide wave and tidal energy resource assessments identify up to 1,400 terawatt hours of potential generation per year. One terawatt-hour of electricity is enough to power 85,000 homes…

The new round of funding aims mainly at pushing promising models and prototypes through the testing stage. It also sets aside funds to develop more effective ways to control marine energy electrical systems, and to create a knowledge base that reduces the timeline (and costs) for commercial deployment.

The 12 Lucky Marine Energy Winners Are…

Much of the $25 million pot is going to shepherd complete marine energy projects through to the testing stage. These include:

Oscilla Power, Inc of Seattle, WA, for testing its wave energy converter in partnership with the University of Maine.

Atargis Energy Corporation of Pueblo, CO, for computer simulations and scaled-down wave tank tests.

Columbia Power Technologies, Inc of Charlottesville, VA, for designing and testing a “quickly deployable” wave energy converter.

Littoral Power Systems, Inc of Fall River, MA, for improving and testing a prototype turbine.

University of Hawaii at Manoa, of Honolulu, HI, for testing its wave energy converter concept and conduct testing in the open ocean.

North Carolina State University of Raleigh, NC, for fine tuning an “ocean kite” system through computer modeling and open water experiments.

Texas A&M University of College Station, TX, for readying its prototype wave energy converter for open ocean testing.

Florida Atlantic University of Boca Raton, FL, for a combination marine current turbine and energy storage system to be deployed on unmanned watercraft and aerial drones.

Three other projects focus on fine tuning the electrical controls of marine energy systems. These are:

Portland State University of Portland, OR, for an innovative magnetic spring.

CalWave Power Technologies, Inc of Berkeley, CA, for a new control architecture that lowers costs while improving efficiency

AWS Ocean Energy Inc of Wilmington, DE, for improvements to a new hydraulic/electrical system.

Last but not least, Kearns and West of San Francisco, CA is tasked with developing an environmental permitting toolkit for marine and hydrokinetic energy systems.

Energy Dept. To Coal: Don’t Let The Door Hit You…

To be clear, DOE still has a fossil energy mandate, and coal is part of that. However, it is also clear that the agency doesn’t take much stock in the current generation of coal technology to compete with other energy sources for power generation, especially natural gas.

All through both the Obama and Trump administrations, DOE has been sitting by while one coal power plant after another bites the dust.

Our friends over at the Houston Chronicle have the scoop on the latest example, the Gibbons Creek power plant in Texas (follow the link and support local journalism!):

The Texas Municipal Power Agency, a group comprising the cities of Bryan, Garland, Denton and Greenville, owns the plant and notified the Electric Reliability Council of Texas that it will suspend operations of the 470-megawatt plant through at least the summer. The move follows the shutdown last year of three coal plants with a combined generation capacity of more than 4,000 megawatts — enough to power at least 800,000 Texas homes — by Vistra Energy of Irving.

This case is an especially interesting one because two years ago Gibbons Creek stopped operating year-round. It has been a “peaker” plant, used only to meet high summer demand. The closure announcement has raised concerns that the state’s grid manager, ERCOT, will be hard pressed to avoid brownouts or even blackouts. Higher costs are already anticipated during the summer months.

Apparently, summertime price spikes are not sufficient to make up for the expense of mothballing coal power plants most of the year. The Chronicle connects the dots to wind power (emphasis added):

…additional supplies from other sources, particularly wind, have moderated the summer price spikes that made it worth the cost of keeping peaker plants ready to go into operation. Peaker plants now face the growing likelihood that they may never be called upon to produce power, even as they maintain and staff them.

The state’s solar industry is also beginning to blossom, so there’s that.

If you caught that thing about peaker plants losing their raison d’être, that should be a red flag for the natural gas industry. Gas stakeholders have been making a good case for using gas instead of coal as a more efficient complement to wind and solar power, especially in the peaker space.

That argument is starting to become irrelevant as wind and solar costs tumble. Cranking up the nation’s marine energy sector adds more fuel to the fire.

Speaking of Texas, considering the state’s vast onshore wind and solar resources it’s interesting that A&M is chasing after marine energy. CleanTechnica is reaching out to the researchers for some insights, so stay tuned for more on that score.

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*Developing story.

Photo (cropped): Wave power device via Columbia Power Systems.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3234 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey