Monday, October 22, 2012

Hydrokinetic Technologies - OTEC

The energy from the sun heats the surface water of the ocean. In tropical regions, the surface water can be much warmer than the deep water. This difference can be used to produce electricity. Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion, or OTEC, has the potential to produce more energy than tidal, wave, and wind energy combined, but it is a technology for the future.

The warm surface water is turned into steam under pressure, or used to heat another fluid into a vapor. This steam or vapor spins a turbine to produce electricity. Pumps bring cold deep water to the surface through huge pipes. The cold water cools the steam or vapor, turning it back into liquid form, and the closed cycle begins again. In an open system design, the steam is turned into fresh water, and new surface water is added to the system.

An OTEC system is only about 3 percent efficient. Pumping the water is a giant engineering challenge. In addition, the electricity must be transported to land. OTEC systems work best with a temperature difference of at least 20°C to operate. This limits its use to tropical regions where the surface waters are very warm. Hawaii, with its tropical climate, has experimented with OTEC systems since the 1970s.

Today, there are several experimental OTEC plants, but no big operations. It will probably be 15 to 20 years before the technology is available to produce energy economically from OTEC systems. OTEC will have the potential to produce non-polluting, renewable energy.

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