Sea Power

author: 
Mason Inman

Sea Power

No, not fleets of warships-this power comes from warm and cold running water.

 

"The current energy crisis is fueling a worldwide search for power. Energy explorers are discovering that the largest reserve of potential energy covers more than 70 percent of the Earth's surface-the oceans." Replace "energy crisis" with "climate crisis," and these words could be pulled from the websites of any of several companies that are now looking to generate clean electricity from the heat stored in the oceans.

But these words were actually spoken nearly 30 years ago in a video showing the deployment of a vast plastic pipe, first snaking along a Hawaiian beach and then being towed out to sea. This pipe was a crucial part of the first power plant of its kind to tap into the energy in the seas, through a process called ocean thermal energy conversion.

In 1979, when this power plant was built, oil prices were near an all-time high and the United States had been searching for alternative sources of energy for almost a decade. The main goal then was energy independence: U.S. policymakers wanted to ensure the country's energy supply rather than rely on oil bought from hostile countries.

"We might very well have had a fleet of ocean thermal plants by now," says Robert Cohen, who in the 1970s was the first manager of the U.S. Department of Energy's research on ocean thermal energy. "We were headed toward that under the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations. But the Reagan administration was not friendly to renewables, especially ocean thermal. They pulled the rug on our funding." Since then, plans for harnessing this technology have lain largely dormant. As Cohen puts it, "It's become an orphan technology."