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Ocean Energy

As with land use, in the technology realm each region has different challenges and opportunities. Here in a high-latitude western coast, we are part of the Middle East of wave energy: averaged throughout the year, there is more than 35 HP hitting every yard of the outer shoreline. Offshore wind here would be nothing to sneeze at, either. But the hazards of deployment and the massive investment so far necessary in equipment have not yet yielded much return.

 

Windfarms, and the majority of current wave projects, attempt to harvest this energy as electricity and bring it ashore to the grid, for example Scotland’s Pelamis, or Oregon’s Powerbuoy.

 

Onshore wind turbines are now a mature technology, competitive with fossil and nuclear energy for comparable levels of public subsidy. Offshore farms are more expensive, but installations are proceeding. Floating turbines, for deeper water, are in early stages of commercial deployment. Wave harvesting is at last in a very active R&D phase with a dozen or more distinct designs in trials, but no clear pattern yet of the future technology spectrum.

 

I would like here to make a pitch for Washington to make our investment in offshore energy on a track distinct from our neighbors in Oregon and the pioneers in Europe. Our situation is sufficiently different that if we decide to learn from their experience it is no disrespect to those whose generation’s worth of insightful hard work has brought offshore wind, wave and tidalstream power to the point where they deserve serious attention from the wider community.

 

While we have somewhat more energy available than farther south, our wild coastline is further from the grid. Our large and diverse maritime sector is very well-connected to Alaska, which has the same situation considerably magnified, with many communities additionally dependent for electricity upon increasingly expensive imported diesel fuel.

 

I suggest that we design our investment to be fully modular, by harvesting energy initially as fluid under pressure, transforming that aboard stable hubs into liquid fuels or other commodities, and exporting these to a variety of destination markets in tanks or pressure vessels. The experiences of the pioneers that we could leapfrog are

 

  • The huge and geographically-tied expense of marine high-power cable best buried in the seabed,

  • Lock-in to a single market,

  • Emerging awareness of the drawbacks to mechanical stepup gearboxes and generators in the nacelles of windtowers,

  • The expense and complexity of electrical generation in buoys,

  • The potential risks of necessarily-high voltage cables over time in a field of floating structures.

 

Besides avoiding these negatives any commercially successful ventures would have unique potential for export to many other exposed coastlines with low populations, such as Chile, South Africa or southern Australia and Tasmania.

 

Our own best wave sites are miles offshore in depths of up to 60 fathoms near the edge of the continental shelf, facing the storms and fetch of the whole North Pacific. The liquid fuel created could be either a hydrocarbon or ammonia*, depending on economic or secondary technical factors, such as markets and carbon sources. 

 

A low-risk first step would be to adopt the practice of using low-cost windpower when idled by grid market conditions to generate fuels ashore as proposed by Doty Windfuels. This would allow development of the necessary marketing and supply infrastructure, and create more stakeholders for investment in later phases as the cost of competing fuels rise, especially natural gas. This idea of establishing a pattern to create and market green energy as liquid, using modern smaller-scale versions of classic ammonia or hydrocarbon gas-to-liquid processes, could then move offshore using first the more mature technology of wind, and then wave prime movers.

 

For the present offshore-derived fuels are still an outlier in the energy portfolio. Natural gas is currently cheaper and easier to use as both feedstock and energy source and its better-developed technology makes it more accessible than anything offshore. But even lacking a carbon-trading system, this is a temporary condition, eventually bound to change with the drawdown of gas and water reserves, rising prices if LNG exports are approved, and the environmental effects of fracking. My intent here is to chart ways that make the future transition to this huge local resource technically, economically and culturally possible.  

 

In the history of innovation there are a innumerable instances where an idea has clear promise but the excitement around it is insufficiently contagious for the next step. It is as if the iterative loop of R&D were a kind of relay race, where the baton of innovative energy must continually pass between science, technology, commerce and government.

 

A new actor can sometimes have disproportionate influence in enabling the next player. In aviation, prizes have for a century significantly advanced the state of the art. Sometimes it’s the development of a new branch of the subject, like the Wright brothers’ windtunnel as a way to solve the problem of control in flight after Otto Lilienthal had given his life in proving that human flight was possible. The Risø laboratory of the Danish Technical University is credited with a critical role in bringing commercial windturbine manufacture to scale by providing independent testing and certification. Of course government action in taxation/credits/tariffs and permitting plays a significant part in both advancing and stalling development, often becoming highly controversial and political in the process.

 

 

 

* The appeal of ammonia, NH3, as fuel, is its high hydrogen content without need of exotic storage; lack of carbon, hence low emissions and potentially, greenhouse-gas footprint; established technology and distribution, and low cost of engine modification, especially diesels. It has a good safety record in industrial and agricultural settings so it would be an excellent fuel for emergency or load-balancing generation, although its lower-than-hydrocarbon energy density and unfamiliar risk-management make it less appealing for general transportation use.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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