If we've paid our bills, we rarely wonder whether a light will turn on in our home when we flip a switch. Join Sue Skemp as she explores a different option: ocean currents, on a journey to a blue energy future!
Ocean Energy Industry
The ocean energy industry represents an eclectic array of organizations, agencies, and companies. All of the various aspects of establishing a healthy and sustainable sector are actively engaged. These range from universities, laboratories, and engineering firms who are investigating technologies, to the government agencies that will be responsible for the regulation, enforcement, and protection of future commercial sites. The U.S. Department of Energy has adopted a scale to assess the maturity of technology called Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs). This scale is used to determine the eligibility of projects for certain levels of development funding, but has also been used to describe the relative progress of specific concepts, designs, and efforts. When applied to projects as a whole, it gives an indication of how far from commercialization the concept is. When applied to specific components of systems, or vice versa, an industry, it provides insight into the types of innovations still needed to move forward.
According to this scale, ocean current energy technologies can generally be found in the TRL 1-5 range. No ocean current prototype devices have been tested in a relevant environment and most commercial efforts can be found in either the design phase or small scale demonstration/proof-of-concept testing. There is some ambiguity when applying TRLs to a small group of commercial efforts which propose to develop smaller-scale modular energy conversion devices that are initially intended to service tidal resources. This development approach proposes to optimize energy production at the smaller scale (with arguably different conditions like operating depth, current direction, turbulence, and overall flow speed) and then transition to the open ocean current regime. Therefore, although the device extraction modules could be legitimately characterized as achieving TRL 7, the application of these concepts for the open ocean are still realistically at TRLs 4-5.
Ocean thermal energy conversion, on the other hand, has received significant development during the past 40 or so years. Although new major systems are still being innovated and no commercial floating plant has been tested at full scale, the operating concepts are fully tested and demonstrated. Therefore, some major components like the cold water pipe and heat exchangers are under early development (TRLs 3-5), the OTEC industry as a whole can be classified in later TRLs (7-8).
While discouraging that these energy production approaches are so young, many opportunities remain to influence the positive growth of both ocean current and ocean thermal energy in the ocean energy industry.