Natural gas and nuclear stakeholders have been looking to fill the void left by coal’s departure from the US power generation scene, but it looks like their work is getting harder by the minute. In the latest development, the Department of Energy is loading up the nation’s clean power plate with a new marine energy research center, aimed at promoting offshore industries along the Atlantic coast.
More Clean Power From The Waters Of The Earth
For those of you new to the topic of marine energy, the idea is to deploy the natural motion of tides and waves to set a mechanical device in motion, and then transfer that mechanical energy into an electrical current.
Hydrokinetic devices can also be deployed in rivers, which is another area of Energy Department focus. The wave and tidal area is of particular interest, though, because it opens up the potential for broad growth in oceangoing industries (more on that in a second).
For the record, the US does have a strong hydropower profile, but the typical hydropower plant requires a dam in order to optimize and regulate water pressure. The development of wave and tidal energy would provide for a whole new field of water-sourced energy in coastal areas.
There being no such thing as a free lunch, the technology hurdles for wave and tidal energy converters are formidable. To cite just one example, it has taken almost 20 years for the nation’s first commercial tidal energy project to get off the drawing board and into the power generation business.
Nevertheless, the Energy Department has provided ongoing support for wave and tidal energy as well as riverine energy research. If all goes according to plan, the new Atlantic coast research center will shrink the R&D timeline for a new generation of clean power technologies.
More Clean Power For New Hampshire
The Energy Department certainly has been on the prowl for more water-sourced clean power this year. Last spring the agency announced a $38 million funding pot to kick off its new “SHARKS” initiative for accelerating marine energy research, and it added another $35 million last month.
The latest marine energy development builds on an existing research center at the University of New Hampshire, to establish the new “Atlantic Marine Energy Center for Advancing the Marine Renewable Energy Industry and Powering the Blue Economy,” or AMEC for short.
If that title sounds like a mouthful, that’s intentional. AMEC is part of a new $22 million round of funding that aims to develop new commercial opportunities in the domestic marine industry area. The idea is to supplement the Energy Department’s R&D resources with academic partners, with an eye toward expanding, diversifying, and decentralizing the nation’s energy workforce .
That angle is a good fit for New Hampshire, especially in terms of diversifying and decentralizing. According to the latest update from the US Energy Information Agency, the state gets more than 60% of its electricity from a single nuclear power plant, the Seabrook plant located on the southern coast. Seabrook recently won a permit to continue operating until 2050, though its future looks dicey on account of a concrete degradation issue.
If and when all those nuclear kilowatts need replacing, it’s going to be an uphill climb. The next-highest source of non-renewable electricity in the state is natural gas, followed by a smidgen of coal. In addition, 40% of households in New Hampshire still depend on fuel oil for heat.
Next-Generation Energy Technology Is Coming
New Hampshire does have a relatively strong profile for electricity generation from renewable resources at 17%, mainly from conventional hydropower and biomass, with a sprinkling of small scale solar and wind. It will need a next-generation upgrade to grow its clean power profile faster and farther, and that’s where AMEC comes in.
AMEC builds on the existing Center for Ocean Renewable Energy at the University of New Hampshire. In its current iteration, CORE is a sprawling network of facilities including two open-water tidal energy test sites in the Great Bay Estuary and an offshore wave energy test site along with laboratories and other support facilities, a 50-foot research vessel, and the largest wind tunnel facility of its kind in the world.
If you’re wondering how the University of New Hampshire beat out other contenders to host AMEC, that’s part of the answer. The other part has to do with a long term technology upgrade for CORE that began in 2010, thanks to a unique Energy Department grant.
The grant was unique in that all of the funding was dedicated to equipment upgrades, rather than the usual mix of equipment plus a supporting cast of researchers, designers, and installers. It was only $750,000, but the CORE squeezed a lot out of a little by timing a series of upgrades with the availability of students and staff, along with assistance from related research programs at the school.
According to a 2018 recap all that hard work paid off. The project concluded with CORE in a good position to spark new growth in the US marine industries area.
“…despite the duration of the project, this has been a great opportunity to thoughtfully enhance the UNH-CORE infrastructure to support the nascent MRE [Marine Energy Resources] and Powering the Blue Economy (PBE) industries,” the 2018 recap concluded, adding that “We spent the funds deliberately with the objective of the project in mind.”
What Is This PBE Of Which You Speak?
The 800-pound elephant in the room is offshore wind power, which is finally poised for rapid growth in the US after years of stagnation.
After all, with gigawatts of new offshore wind in the works for Atlantic coast states, why throw more research dollars into hydrokinetics?
Good question! Part of the answer is transmission. Building new electricity transmission lines in the US is getting to be one big headache. Along with energy storage, tidal and wave devices could provide new opportunities for off grid, on-site power generation in coastal areas. That would also dovetail with the Energy Department’s aim of decentralizing the nation’s electricity supply.
The main focus, though, is on expanding the nation’s marine industries by making water-sourced clean power handy. The Energy Department’s Water Power Technologies Office is all over the idea like white on rice and has even trademarked a new initiative called Powering the Blue Economy™ to coordinate R&D activity.
PBE kicked off in December 2017 with a stakeholder forum on wave and tidal power, followed by an analysis of 12 maritime markets that are ripe for a clean power makeover, which was then narrowed down to a group of eight: ocean observation, underwater vehicle charging, aquaculture, algae cultivation, seawater mining (for power at sea), desalination, resiliency and disaster recovery, and isolated communities (for resilient coastal communities).
If all goes according to plan, the testing facilities at AMEC will speed the commercialization of tidal and wave energy devices tailored to conditions along the Atlantic coast.
All of this is by way of saying that the wheels of clean power never stopped turning all throughout the *Trump administration, despite all that talk about saving coal jobs. There is a lot of lost ground to make up, but the incoming Biden administration has a running start on clean technology and collaborative systems that will enable the US to stop lagging behind the pack, and claim a vanguard position on climate action.
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Image: Powering the Blue Economy via National Renewable Energy Laboratory.