How Do We Build a Successful Marine Energy Industry? Build a TEAMER
Article courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). By Caitlin McDermott-Murphy
“It was getting hotter.”
That is how the science fiction book The Ministry for the Future starts. The main character, Frank May, looks out his apartment window at a sauna-like morning in northern India. It is 6 a.m. and already 103 degrees Fahrenheit. The power clicks off. People panic. Even today, a power failure can be lethal. But in this fictionalized vision of a world ravaged by climate change, it is certain to be.
Today, the world is getting hotter. But that does not mean May’s dystopia is tomorrow’s reality. Transitioning to clean, renewable energy, including promising marine energy technologies, would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help the Biden administration reach its goal of net-zero carbon emissions — meaning, a balance between greenhouse gases emitted and removed in the atmosphere — by 2050. To do that, the United States needs to build up its renewable energy team, including the budding but not yet commercially viable marine energy. And to do that, the country needs a TEAMER.
Launched in 2019 by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office, the TEAMER — which stands for Testing Expertise and Access for Marine Energy Research — program pairs promising marine energy startups with experts at national laboratories, universities, and other partners in the TEAMER network. So far, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has supported 15 of 71 TEAMER projects (a sampling of these can be found here).
“Our national laboratories are fantastic resources for the marine energy industry,” said Michael Lawson, a senior scientist at NREL and the general manager of the laboratory’s water power research and development program. “But unfortunately, young companies don’t always have the resources to partner with us. TEAMER solves that problem.”
Together, these teams (hence the name TEAMER) can hasten the development of cost-effective technologies that produce energy for the U.S. power grid. Marine energy could help decarbonize the grid, and, because it complements other renewable energy resources, it could also help maintain the resilience and reliability of the nation’s energy system (avoiding the bleak black-out scenario portrayed in The Ministry for the Future).
“It’s amazing to see how much progress has been made,” said Lauren Ruedy, a technology manager in the Water Power Technologies Office who helped create the TEAMER program. “We’re not only helping developers enhance their technology; we’re also collecting reliable, consistently formatted, publicly available data that will serve the industry as a whole.”
Through TEAMER, technology developers and researchers can access experts at over 30 world-class facilities, including NREL. Together, the teams evaluate and enhance technology designs through everything from early-stage numerical modeling to laboratory testing of more mature prototypes. This iterative approach is key to achieving commercial success faster and for a lower overall cost. Alone, developers could make mistakes others have already made and overcome. And polishing a design’s kinks in a virtual or lab environment is far less risky than trying to fix errors out at sea.
So, what do these projects look like? Here are three examples that showcase the progress developers can make by TEAMERing up with NREL’s experts.
The Tidal Power Tug — Laboratory Testing
TEAMER Support Recipient: Aquantis
NREL Lead: Scott Hughes and Toan Tran
Aquantis’ Tidal Power Tug does exactly what its name suggests; it tugs on tides to generate clean energy. Constructed to be lightweight and, therefore, lower cost, the device can generate large amounts of electricity with minimal material and money. That is especially valuable for its target market: remote and local grids. For villages far from the electrical grid, these devices could provide clean and reliable energy from the tides rushing in and out in nearby rivers and inlets.
Now, Aquantis is polishing its design with help from TEAMER and NREL. The company enlisted the laboratory’s experts to develop a model that can predict how the Tidal Power Tug’s horizontal turbine — which looks like mini helicopter blades — might function in real-world tides. Plus, to drive down costs even further, the company is building its new turbine blades with materials that are both less expensive and potentially better suited to survive a submerged, seawater environment. NREL researchers are supporting the development of these new blades by evaluating their manufacturability and performance as well as the material’s properties under both dry and water-saturated conditions.
Sealing the Deal for Tidal Turbines — Laboratory Testing
TEAMER Support Recipient: Verdant Power
NREL Lead: Robynne Murray and Scott Lambert
Many tidal turbines look like tiny underwater wind turbines, but they must weather a far different environment than wind. Dense, forceful, and often salty waters could shorten a device’s lifespan if it is not outfitted to survive such conditions. One critical part of a marine energy machine’s armor is rotating seals, which allow turbines to spin and generate energy while preventing water from leaking in.
Teaming up with Verdant Power, NREL’s experts designed a custom testing system for the company to see how well its rotating seals might perform across a device’s full life span. “By developing a rigorous framework to study the best seals,” said Robynne Murray, a mechanical engineer at NREL, “we could help Verdant Power and the marine energy industry achieve low costs and reliable operation for long, underwater deployments.”
The data collected through this TEAMER collaboration could help the entire industry improve these critical components and accelerate the development of commercially successful tidal turbines.
A “PIP” of a Wave Energy Converter — Numerical Modeling
TEAMER Support Recipient: iProTech
NREL Lead: David Ogden
iProTech’s wave energy device (called “PIP”) acts like two tethered pendulums, swinging in ocean waves. To analyze exactly how these pendulums might move and how much energy they could produce in the waves off the coast of California, the company sought NREL’s help.
Through TEAMER, NREL’s researchers developed two models — one to assess how changes in the device’s geometry might impact its energy production and another to analyze the machine’s hydraulic system, the mechanism that translates that motion into electricity. “We found that by changing a certain combination of variables, they could potentially improve the performance of the device,” said David Ogden, a mechanical engineer and the lead NREL researcher working with iProTech.
“TEAMER enables us to work with industry and apply our simulation software to real-world applications,” Ogden said. “It’s a symbiotic relationship. They benefit from this programming. We benefit from having a better understanding of what the industry needs.”