Hawaii ideal for ocean-based renewable energy plants


August 3, 2010

A land based OTEC facility at Keahole Point on the Kona coast of Hawaii

A land based OTEC facility at Keahole Point on the Kona coast of Hawaii

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The Earth’s oceans are continually heated by the sun, creating a temperature difference between deep and shallow water. This temperature difference contains a vast amount of solar energy, which can potentially be harnessed to generate electricity. Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC), involves placing a heat engine between warm water collected at the ocean’s surface and cold water pumped from the deep ocean. Like a ball rolling downhill, heat flows from the warm reservoir to the cool one. The greater the temperature difference, the stronger the flow of heat that can be used to do useful work such as spinning a turbine and generating electricity.

The history of OTEC dates back more than a half century. But although the total energy available is one or two orders of magnitude higher than other ocean energy options such as wave power, the technology has never taken off. This is largely because of the relatively low cost of oil and other fossil fuels and the small magnitude of the temperature difference makes energy extraction comparatively difficult and expensive, due to low thermal efficiency.

Taking sides

Because the places where large OTEC facilities would be most cost effective is where the ocean temperature differentials are the greatest, locations closer to the equator are seen as the most viable. Now researchers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa say that the leeward side of Hawaiian islands are better suited than the windward side for future ocean-based OTEC energy plants. This is because the temperature differential is about one degree Celsius greater on the leeward (western) side of the Hawaiian Islands than that on the windward (eastern) side.

This small difference translates to 15 percent more power for an OTEC plant, says the University of Hawaii's Gérard Nihous, whose theoretical work focuses on driving down cost and increasing efficiency of future facilities, the biggest hurdles to bringing the technology to the mainstream.


Earlier OTEC systems had an overall efficiency of only one to three percent, but current designs under review should be able to operate closer to the theoretical maximum efficiency of between six and seven percent. Although this is still low, OTEC plants can be configured to operate continuously as a Base load power plant to provide the minimum amount of power that a utility company must make available to its customers.

"Testing that was done in the 1980s clearly demonstrates the feasibility of this technology," says Nihous. "Now it's just a matter of paying for it."

OTEC appears to be attracting more interest as a renewable energy source. OTEC technology is used to power the SOLO-TREC autonomous underwater vehicle, and in March this year, the U.S. Department of Energy selected Lockheed Martin to receive two grants totaling US$1 million to advance the technology commercialization of OTEC. Lockheed Martin's experience with OTEC technology dates back to the 1970s when the company built “Mini-OTEC.” This early prototype remains the world’s only floating OTEC system to generate power in excess of what is required for self-sustainment. Signs are it won’t hold that title for much longer.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

Nihous writes, \"Testing that was done in the 1980s clearly demonstrates the feasibility of this technology. Now it\'s just a matter of paying for it.\"

And that\'s the point. Technical feasibility does not equate to eventual economic feasibility. Someone needs to examine if OTEC is anything more than a money pit. Three huge and likely unsolvable hurdles exist: 1) the astronomical cost of a sensible intake pipe, 2) the control of biofouling of internal passages without the use of harmful chemicals, and 3) the environmental consequences of the discharge plume.


Someone please send help to the US Virgin Islands Water & Power Association right away..!!

Facebook User

Using ocean thermal to generate electricity seems quite pointless so long as we are still burning fossil fuels and diluting their high-grade energy down for low-grade heating and cooling purposes.

I\'ve done a sample thermodynamic analysis on OTEC (see it at ) using plenty of idealized assumptions and it isn\'t promising.

We\'re better off saving the oil and natural gas to produce electricity and saving ocean thermal for climate-control (mainly cooling) purposes.

Corey Johnson

There\'s a spot in Hawaii where you could get more thermal efficiency. That\'s the spot where an active volcano continually sends molten lava into the water. But it\'s a national park, and it won\'t last forever. Corey\'s idea about using ocean thermal for cooling sounds great. It could be used to cool the buildings around Coney Island, New York, and the warmed water, sent back into the ocean along the beach would make bathing at that beach more pleasant.


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