In the face of the growing evidence and concern around the world that the use of fossil fuels to produce energy is contributing to contamination and the warming up of the planet, Ted Johnson, vice-president and executive director of Ocean Thermal Energy Corporation, strongly believes that a clean alternative energy resource is in the world’s oceans. Jaquematepress contacted him to discuss this possibility.
How is thermal energy obtained from the ocean?
Well, 80% of the earth’s surface is water. Therefore, the amount of energy absorbed in the ocean is far greater than any of the land masses. And the energy is stored in the ocean as heat.
So you take advantage of the difference in temperature between the temperature at the bottom of the ocean and at the surface?
The technology we use is called the “heat engine.” It’s the same technology used in a heat pump or a refrigerator. We simply reverse the process. Whenever you have a hot medium and a cold medium you produce steam and therefore from that you can produce energy by means of a Rankine heat engine, which is basically like a steam engine. But in Ocean Thermal Energy Corporation (OTEC) we don’t have boiling water. More than 80% of the power plants in the U.S.A. use Rankine heat engines, using coal and oil and gas as the energy used to operate the plant. However, in OTEC we don’t have those very high temperatures which you get by burning fossil fuels. What we have is a closed room Rankine heat engine, which is the same technology that you have in heat pumps.
So the key is that with this technology you don’t use fossil fuels…
Exactly. You hit it on the head. When you use fossil fuels you burn them that is you are burning dead plants and animals but under pressure. That produces a lot of energy but when you burn fossils you emit contaminating gases. At OTEC we don’t burn anything. We just use this Rankine heat engine.
Is it fairly easy to set up this kind of thermal technology?
It’s easy. The technology was actually invented by a Frenchman over one hundred years ago. You might say the idea originated with Jules Verne, the man who wrote “20,000 Leagues under the Sea.” He was a scientist who had a lot of great ideas. A colleague of Jules Verne, a university professor, had a student called George Claude, who came up with an idea related to thermal energy and tried it out in Cuba well over 100 years ago. The problem he had in building it was the technology of the day, you know, large pipes and heat engines. You can actually visit Cuba now and see where he built a thermal plant. It wasn’t until the late ‘70’s that the United States became interested in OTEC energy.
What happened to that initiative, why didn’t it proceed?
What made the U.S. government invest in OTEC? Not only OTEC but other renewable technologies, way back in the 70’s. It was the Arab oil embargo. So the price of a barrel went up, say, from $2 to ten times that price. The price went through the roof and there were limited supplies, long lines…it was a national crisis. OTEC technology was tested thoroughly at this national energy laboratory. But then guess what happened? The embargo ended and oil became dirt cheap again and nobody cared about renewable energy. If we had only stayed on the path of OTEC we would have these alternative sources of energy working today. Oil became so cheap that none of the renewable energy methods could be put into practice.
It’s getting cheap again, isn’t it, with the use of shale…
Yea, that’s right. What I was going to mention was back in those days, in the 70’s, people weren’t so aware of the environmental damage produced by fossil fuel based energy. They didn’t care. They would burn the cheapest thing. So all of this alternative energy activity went to a lower level. However, some OTEC research continued with the U.S. government. When the embargo started they put solar panels on the roof of the White House, I don’t know if you know that. Then they tore them down. We got addicted again to cheap dirty oil, with all of the political implications of that around the world. But around the early 1990’s very large oil pipes which OTEC needs were developed. That allowed OTEC to be scaled up. Now we are at the commercialization stage, with large and small companies involved.
What is the resistance at presence to going into this form of energy now?
What the world is waiting for is the first commercial size OTEC plant. In the 70’s the plants that existed were just to test the technology. Now with the larger pipes we can commercialize.
A possible problem might be that you need to establish the plants where you have very deep oceans…
Yes, in general you need very deep ocean water but more important is to have very cold ocean water. Anyway, around 50% of the world’s population has access to the kind of ocean water needed to set up an OTEC plant. Another important aspect of OTEC—aside from being clean and sustainable—is the ability to provide constant power. Power obtain from the wind and the sun is not consistent. The solar systems are only about 20% efficient. And wind comes and goes. So to operate that way you need a fossil fuel back up. With OTEC the energy is stored in the ocean, so it is just a question of taking it out. The amount of energy stored in the ocean is over 4,000 times what the world uses every day.
What about contamination. Does energy produced by OTEC produce contamination?
What OTEC does is to bring up the cold water. It does not chemically change anything. And the water extracted is always contained in the pipes. What OTEC does is to take cold water and then returns it to the ocean—actually at slightly cooler temperatures. With fossil fuels you’ve got the problem of CO2 and so forth. In terms of environment effects—which by the way have been studied way back since the ‘70’s by the by the National Oceanographic Association (NOA) and other groups for any environmental contaminating effects. There is one that can be mitigated and that is when you bring up cool water from great depths you also bring up algae and like elements to the surface. But what is brought up remains in the pipes and is returned to the ocean.
You are taking the water from very deep areas where you have micro-organisms, is that not right?
The water is usually taken at a depth of around one thousand meters and at that depth there is almost no life. It is very dark, very cold and there is no sun light. The deep water in the oceans actually came from the glaciers and polar ice caps and was so cold that it stayed at the bottom undisturbed and very pure. It is good water for the human body and it can be bottled. Hawaii is actually exporting that kind of water!
Does it have the same amount of salt as the surface water?
It’s a little different because of the temperature and doesn’t have as much salt. You are not going to find anything living down there, although occasionally you get one of these very strange deep sea creatures that are very white because of the lack of sunlight down there. Every few months in Hawaii we get one of these creatures in the cold water pipes. They go into a pond where they can be taken out and returned to the bottom of the sea.
Something like a Lockness Monster!
Yea, they are very strange.
What are the potential political complications which might appear with the massive introduction of OTEC energy?
There are still no commercial plants, however Lockheed has an agreement with China to commercially build Ocean Thermal Energy plants. The Chinese really want to work on this but they are still putting together the technology and the design. They have not yet developed the system. There is also a large company in France, for Martinique. In terms of research and development, the Japanese have just set up a research and development plant, likewise in South Korea and Malaysia is about to do so.
Is there any development of ocean thermal energy in South America?
There is no activity, although some of the smaller ocean energy companies have made visits to the area. However, we did talk to Petrobras, the big Brazilian oil company and they seemed very interested.
Senior vice-president and executive director, doctor of science from Western University http://otecorporation.com/
800South Queen street, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.
Dr. Johnson is responsible for OTEC and SDC program development and management including technology and engineering at OTE Corporation.
Dr. Johnson previously served as a Director at Lockheed Martinâ€™s New Ventures Organization, where he focused on the development of the Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) business. Dr. Johnsonâ€™s history in OTEC goes back to when he assumed the leadership of the heritage Lockheedâ€™s Ocean Systems Division in Sunnyvale, California. Lockheedâ€™s Ocean Systems Division built and successfully tested the Mini OTEC system off the Hawaiian Islands. Dr. Johnson continued to direct work on OTEC and several years ago launched an effort in Lockheed Martin to accelerate OTEC technology development and commercialization as a base load clean sustainable energy generation technology. Other energy related work that Dr. Johnson had been involved in while leading the heritage Lockheed Ocean Systems Division included wave energy systems, fuel cells, and biofuels.
Prior to this, Dr. Johnson held a number of P&L line management assignments in Lockheed Martin, including Director of International Oceans Business, Homeland Security Director, and Director of Adjacent Markets. Before joining Lockheed Martin, Dr. Johnson held a number of senior management assignments of increasing responsibility with Honeywell, Inc. where he started his career as a Senior Principal Research Scientist at the Honeywell Corporate Research Center.
Dr. Johnson is a member of the board of Directors of the Ocean Energy Council, Ocean Renewable Energy Council, Geothermal Research Council and the National Hydropower Organization, as well as other professional societies. Dr. Johnson received the Ocean Energy Pioneer Award in 2009 for his pioneering work on OTEC. Dr. Johnson holds a Doctor of Science Degree from Northwestern University, where he also attended the Kellogg Graduate School of Business Management.