David Hume | March 26th, 2018
If you’re looking for an intractable engineering challenge, but also one that holds immense potential, marine renewable energy may be the industry for you.
Designing and building devices to extract energy from ocean waves, tides, or currents is not easy. The ocean is the most hostile environment on the planet and it has no mercy. Extreme loads from 10-meter-high waves and hurricane force winds would give any design engineer cause for concern. Add to the list of functional requirements the ability to resist seawater corrosion and biofouling (accumulation of marine organisms) for years on end, all while providing reliable power, and most engineers will politely ask you to stop with the crazy talk.
Designing a system to withstand these forces of nature is one of the most difficult multidisciplinary challenges around, but the upside is huge. The different forms of marine energy conversion could amount to a generation potential of over 1,500 terawatt-hour (TWh) per year in the U.S. alone. This is on par with rooftop solar, estimated at 1,400 TWh annually. Then there are the other myriad industries that are power-constrained at sea, such as aquaculture farms, ocean observation systems, or even charging stations for underwater vehicles. These markets collectively amount to multi-billion dollar opportunities.
In spite of the challenges there are more than three-hundred companies across the globe that are looking to harness the power of the ocean. While the solar and wind industries have generally rallied around common designs and practices, the marine energy industry is still the Wild West. All of these companies have unique designs for extracting ocean energy, but none have gained widespread adoption like the horizontal axis three-blade turbine in the wind industry. Tidal energy is slightly more mature, but the global industry is only just starting to see the first commercial projects come online within the last couple years. The field is still fertile for innovators.
For those interested in pursuing a career in marine renewable energy, I offer some advice:
Be patient. Be prepared for several years of development, at a minimum, before even thinking about commercializing any marine energy technology. Permitting, testing, construction, and fund raising all take time.
Get in the water. Testing is absolutely essential to building a robust device and proving reliability. Computer simulation and modeling is useful, but in the water is where things start to break and where you will learn the most.
Think lean. Costs need to come down drastically for these devices to become competitive with other more established renewable energy technologies supplying grid-power. Technology managers should constantly be looking for ways to use modular and off-the-shelf parts, lightweight materials, and innovative manufacturing techniques to drive out waste.
The grid is not the only market. Consider opportunities aside from delivering electricity to the grid. Seawater desalination, aquaculture, or charging underwater vehicles are just a sample of the many other markets for marine energy technologies that are not well served by other forms of renewable energy.
It is said that MIT students love a good engineering challenge. Efficient and reliable conversion of ocean energy is one of the most difficult engineering challenges out there and it’s still waiting for a solution. Get solving.
David is a graduate from the MIT Leaders for Global Operations program and a former MIT Energy Club member. He currently works as a marine engineer for the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO) supporting the research and development of marine renewable energy. He is also the founder of the The Liquid Grid (www.theliquidgrid.com), an educational website dedicated to ocean sustainability and marine clean tech. The views expressed here are his own and may not reflect those of the DOE or WPTO.