_The turbines planted in 2008 off the coast of Lincolnshire, on England’s eastern edge, brought the United Kingdom’s total of electricity generated from offshore wind turbines to 590 megawatts, enough to power 300,000 homes. Plans to double the growth of the U.K.’s offshore wind farms by 2016 will secure the country as the world’s largest producer of electricity generated from ocean winds.
On this side of the Atlantic it’s a very different story. The first proposal for an offshore wind farm in the U.S., near Cape Cod, is still stalled after 10 years in the works. Even California, famously a domestic leader in the pursuit of alternative energy, hasn’t managed to tap into the vast energetic reserves of the sea. While several possibilities exist to harvest our ocean’s power—including ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC), tides, currents, waves and offshore wind—none of the renewable energy produced in California last year came from off our coasts.
It’s not that the technology isn’t there. All of the options listed above are currently being developed to some degree. OTEC, which uses the temperature difference between cold deep water and warmer surface water to run a heat engine to produce electricity, is thought to have the greatest potential where the temperature difference between surface and deeper waters is the greatest, such as the tropics. The Swedish company Minesto is investigating harvesting tidal energy using turbines—a technology that could be deployed to some of the world’s stronger currents, like the Gulf Stream. And the U.K., Denmark and Sweden are already benefiting from energy derived from offshore winds.
The obstacles, rather, are regulatory and policy-related. In a discussion hosted by the Seymour Center at Long Marine Laboratory Nov. 10, California Natural Resources Agency Secretary John Laird, marine biologist Peter Nelson of Collaborative Fisheries Research West, Joby Energy founder JoeBen Bevirt and moderator Gary Griggs, director of UC–Santa Cruz’s Institute of Marine Sciences, explored the prospects and setbacks of deriving renewable energy from our oceans.
Bevirt said the biggest impediment to using any form of renewable energy on a large scale is the lack of a carbon emissions policy that would provide an incentive for businesses to push harder for renewables.. “To me, economics drives a lot of the decisions that we make, individually and globally,” Bevirt said. “There was a global opportunity a couple of years ago in Copenhagen at the climate conference—it was an opportunity missed.”
The panelists agreed that the complications of logistics and permitting are the biggest other setbacks. Laird said he thinks this issue has been made more difficult because of the concerns some environmentalists have about the impact the technological structures would have on marine life. In that vein, Griggs joked, “There are some advantages to having a totalitarian regime. I have often said, ‘Just give me the Chinese government for a day.’ While they’re out there actually using renewable energy, we’re still analyzing the environmental impacts.”
Bevirt offered the view that renewable energy is “difficult to regulate because everyone is coming from a different viewpoint. Some people don’t even believe in global warming—they’re not going to think about how many seabirds are going to die from offshore wind-turbines versus from global temperature increases.”
Nelson, who has done research on the impacts of man-made oceanic intrusions on marine life, continued, “I think one of the things that’s really missing is leadership. The forum that’s going to get us to recognize that everything we do has a cost and that we’re going to have to be honest as we evaluate those costs and benefits.” He laughingly added, “If I were king for a day I would look for some wise man who is capable of pulling people together and just says, ‘OK, we need to formulate a plan. No one is going to be 100 percent happy with it, but we still need to find a way to do it that’s wise and responsible.’”
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Weekly: