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What is Ocean Thermal Energy?

Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) is a process that can produce electricity by
using the temperature difference between deep cold ocean water and warm tropical
surface waters. OTEC plants pump large quantities of deep cold seawater and surface
seawater to run a power cycle and produce electricity. OTEC is firm power (24/7), a
clean energy source, environmentally sustainable and capable of providing massive
levels of energy.


In 1870, Jules Verne introduced the concept of ocean thermal energy conversion
(OTEC) in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Within a decade, American, French
and Italian scientists are said to have been working on the concept but the Frenchman,
physicist Jacques-Arsene d’Arsonval, is generally credited as the father of the concept
for using ocean temperature differences to create power.
D’Arsonval’s student, Georges Claude, built the first OTEC power plant in 1930 in Cuba,
which produced 22 kilowatts of electricity. This led to an on-shore open cycle plant,
with a pipe extending out to sea. Despite initial problems, power was generated.
French research continued in earnest through the 1940s and into the 1950s. Research
also began in California in the 1940s. In all cases, work was slowed or halted by
cheaper alternatives to power generation.
In the 1960s, J. Hilbert Anderson and his son James Anderson designed a closed-cycle
OTEC power plant, aimed to be more practical, compact, and economic. This cycle
pumps warm surface water through heat exchangers to boil a working fluid into a
vapor. The vapor expands to power turbines and drive generators. Cold water pumped
from the deep ocean condenses the vapor back into its liquid state. The Arab Oil
Embargo and the skyrocket of oil prices in the mid 1970s drove high interest to the
Andersons’ and other OTEC models.
Japan and India each have done research on smaller scale OTEC power plants and both
continue to pursue the technology. In 1979 and 1980, closed-cycle Mini-OTEC and
OTEC-1 were built at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawai‘i Authority (NELHA) to
demonstrate the concept. The U.S. Department of Energy deemed OTEC was a viable
energy source following the Hawai‘i projects.
Hawai‘i Senator Spark Matsunaga spearheaded a bill that passed Congress and was
signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 that promoted OTEC development.
Funding peaked that year, however, as cheaper oil made alternatives less attractive.
The Andersons, using personal resources, continued to advance their innovative
technology. In 2000, the Andersons granted an exclusive worldwide license to The
Abell Foundation to their lifetime work of OTEC research and development. The Abell
Foundation established OTEC International LLC in 2001 (formerly Sea Solar Power
International) to commercialize OTEC technology. Starting with the Anderson’s strong
foundation, OTI updated their design to the current state of the art for the first
generation of commercial OTEC facilities.


Recently, higher electricity costs, increased concerns for global warming, and a
political commitment to energy security have made initial OTEC commercialization
economically attractive in tropical island communities where a high percentage of
electricity production is oil based. Even within the US, this island market is very large;
globally it is many times larger. As OTEC technology matures, it should become
economically attractive in the southeast US.
Makai has been pioneering OTEC research since working on the first net-power
producing plant in 1979. Since that time, Makai has been a sub- or prime contractor
for dozens of unique research and development contracts in OTEC. Most recently, Makai
has been involved with Lockheed Martin and others pursuing the development of
100MW OTEC plants for island communities like Hawaii and Guam.
Makai has developed internationally recognized expertise in OTEC in the areas of
commercial and pilot plant designs, overall technical and economic modeling, heat
exchanger design and testing, cold water pipe design and deployment, environmental
effects (hydro- and bio-plume modeling), and the power cable to shore.
OTEC process

An OTEC system is comprised of components such as an evaporator, condenser,

turbine, generator, and pump. This system utilizes the temperature difference between
warm surface seawater and deep seawater (taken from depths of 600 to 1000 meters)
to generate electricity. This is done using a working fluid with the low boiling point that
vaporizes as the result of heat transfer from the warm surface seawater in the
evaporator. The vapor drives the turbine, which in turn drives a generator to produce
electricity. The vapor then is passed through the condenser, where the transfer of heat
energy to the cold seawater returns the vapor to a liquid state.
To maximize the efficiency of every part of this process, from water intake to heat
exchange, power generation, and water discharge, this system relies on an integrated
control and monitoring system, performance management software, safety
instrumentation, wireless communications, and a variety of sensors. Optimizing the
overall system will stabilize operation and increase the efficiency of power generation.

Makai’s OTEC plant forms part of its OTEC heat exchanger test facility and marine
corrosion lab, named Ocean Energy Research Center (OERC), located at the NELHA site,
which was opened in 2011 following the award of a fund by the US Navy in 2009.
The OREC is capable of testing six heat exchangers simultaneously and also conducts
research programmes on seawater air-conditioning (SWAC), corrosion prevention and
heat exchangers for other marine applications.
The research and development works at OERC were funded by the Office of Naval
Research (ONR) through the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute (HNEI), whereas the
funding for the OTEC plant’s infrastructure was provided by Naval Facilities Engineering
Command (NAVFAC).
The US Navy’s special engagement in the research centre is driven by its target of
generating 50% of its shore-based energy from renewable sources by 2020. The heat
exchanger research facility is necessary as their components are estimated to make up
approximately one-third of the overall cost in developing a commercial OTEC plant,
primarily suited for offshore locations.
As of 2014, the research centre completed the test of seven heat exchangers that are
constructed of either aluminium or titanium. The US Navy awarded Makai a contract to
add a turbine generator to complete the power plant and test the working of OTEC
technology on the grid, in 2013.
Makai’s OTEC plant is a closed-cycle facility that uses an ammonia fluid to drive the
turbine-generator. The two new heat exchangers and the 100kW ammonia turbine-
generator were delivered to the project site in late 2014. The turbine generator was
placed on top of the 40ft-high OTEC tower within the same year and the testing works
for the two heat exchangers started subsequently.
The deep seawater is obtained using either a 40in diameter intake pipeline or a 55in
diameter pipeline. The pipes can supply up to 26,000gal a minute of cold seawater,
equivalent to the warm surface water pumped for the facility each minute.
The two heat exchangers have a 2MW thermal duty each, are between two and eight
metres tall, and have a typical design seawater flow of 0.25m³ a second (4,000gal a
minute). They were supplied by Lockheed Martin and are the first to use friction stir
welding, a technique that reduces ocean corrosion.

Ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) is a process or technology for producing

energy by harnessing the temperature differences (thermal gradients) between ocean
surface waters and that of ocean depths.
Energy from the sun heats the surface water of the ocean. In tropical regions, surface
water can be much warmer than deep water. This temperature difference can be used
to produce electricity and to desalinate ocean water. Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion
(OTEC) systems use a temperature difference (of at least 77o F) to power a turbine to
produce electricity. Warm surface water is pumped through an evaporator containing a
working fluid. The vaporized fluid drives a turbine/generator. The vaporized fluid is
turned back to a liquid in a condenser cooled with cold ocean water pumped from
deeper in the ocean. OTEC systems using seawater as the working fluid can use the
condensed water to produce desalinated water.


A basic closed-cycle OTEC plant is
shown in the figure. Warm seawater
passes through an evaporator and
vaporizes the working fluid, ammonia.
The ammonia vapor passes through a
turbine which turns a generator
making electricity. The lower pressure
vapor leaves the turbine and
condenses in the condenser
connected to a flow of deep cold
seawater. The liquid ammonia leaves
the condenser and is pumped to the
evaporator to repeat the cycle.
In an open cycle OTEC system the
seawater itself is used to provide the
thermodynamic fluid. Warm seawater is
expanded rapidly in a partially evacuated
chamber where some of it 'flashes' to steam.
This steam is then used to drive a steam
turbine. From the exhaust of the turbine, the
vapour is condensed using cold seawater.
The vapour produced by flashing warm
seawater is at a relatively low pressure so it
requires a very large turbine to operate
effectively. Practical limitations mean that
the largest open cycle turbine that can be
built today is around 2.5 MW, much smaller
than for a closed cycle system.
One of the major advantages of the open
cycle system is that the water condensed
from the turbine exhaust is fresh, not
salt water, and so the plant can also
serve as a source of drinking water as
well as electricity. A 210 kW open cycle
OTEC pilot plant operated in Hawaii
between 1993 and 1998.


In a hybrid OTEC plant warm seawater is flashed to produce steam and this steam is
then employed as the heat source for a closed cycle system. This system is more
complex that either of the other cycles but it marries the compact closed cycle system
with the ability to produce drinking water.
A hybrid cycle combines the features of the closed- and open-cycle systems. In a
hybrid, warm seawater enters a vacuum chamber and is flash-evaporated, similar to the
open-cycle evaporation process. The steam vaporizes the ammonia working fluid of a
closed-cycle loop on the other side of an ammonia vaporizer. The vaporized fluid then
drives a turbine to produce electricity. The steam condenses within the heat exchanger
and provides desalinated water.
1. Power from OTEC is continuous, renewable and pollution free.
2. Unlike other forms of solar energy, output of OTEC shows very little daily or
seasonal variation.
3. Drawing of warm and cold sea water and returning of the sea water, close to the
thermocline, could be accomplished with minimum environment impact.
4. Electric power generated by OTEC could be used to produce hydrogen.
5. Tropical and sub-tropical island sites could be made free from pollution caused
by conventional fuels for electricity generation.
6. OTEC system might help in enrichment of fishing grounds due to the nutrients
from the unproductive deep waters to the warmer surface waters.
7. A floating OTEC plant can generate power even at mid sea and can be used to
provide power for off shore mining and processing of manganese nodules.


 At present, government subsidies are required to make OTEC energy
economically viable. Electricity can be produced at about $0.07 per
kilowatt-hour, as opposed to subsidized wind power systems that can
produce energy for as low as $0.05 per kilowatt-hour. Moreover, OTEC
requires expensive, large-diameter pipes submerged about a mile below
the ocean's surface. Many of the countries within the viable geographical
belt (between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn) lack the
economic resources to build this infrastructure.

 Because OTEC facilities are stationary surface platforms, they are
essentially considered artificial islands and, therefore, their exact
location affects their legal status under the United Nations Convention on
the Law of the Sea treaty (UNCLOS). According to UNCLOS, coastal nations
are given 3-, 12- and 200-mile zones of varying legal authority. The
amount of political autonomy among these zones varies greatly.
Consequently, jurisdictional conflicts could arise based on international
boundary disputes between nations.


 Capital investment is very high.
 Due to small temperature difference in between the surface water and
deep water, conversion efficiency is very low about 3-4%.
 Low efficiency of these plants coupled with high capital cost and
maintenance cost makes them uneconomical for small plants.