Why Is U.S. Development of Ocean Energy So Slow?

Why are ocean renewables so far behind others such as wind, solar and biofuels in the United States?

In the 1970s, rising oil prices lead the U.S. federal government to invest approximately $245 million in a technology called ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC). OTEC relies on the differential in temperature between cold, deep ocean waters and warmer surface water temperature. Areas like Hawaii, Guam, and equatorial islands with deep ocean proximity and ocean temperature differential were best suited for OTEC. In 1980, Congress enacted the OTEC Act to stimulate private development of OTEC plants. But because of the high cost of development, no company ever sought to construct an OTEC plant. Also, in 1980, the newly elected Republican administration cut back on funding for government programs, including OTEC. By the early 1990s, the Department of Energy eliminated ocean energy funding from its budget and to date, does not retain a designated staff person with responsibility for ocean energy. Also, in the 1990s, deregulation and declining natural gas prices reduced the cost of electricity so that newly emerging wave and tidal ocean technologies were no longer economic within the United States. Overseas, through the late 1990s, government funded research and development on ocean energy projects continued. In the United States, advancements took place through the efforts of private companies such as AquaEnergy, Verdant Power and Ocean Power Technologies, which by 2001 proposed projects within the United States in Washington State, New York and Hawaii. By 2005, Congress recognized that ocean and hydrokinetic technologies could contribute to our nation’s renewable energy supply, and included these technologies in certain programs that were open to other renewables. Today, ocean and hydrokinetic technologies have reached a point where they are ready for initial commercial deployment. Advancements in Europe, recent developments in composite metals and lessons learned from wind and offshore technologies have addressed many of the challenges faced by marine renewables. However, in contrast to wind and solar projects, which could be sited on private lands, ocean and hydrokinetic technologies must be deployed in waterways, which are considered public resources. Questions about jurisdiction over these permitting issues have slowed deployment of commercial ocean and hydrokinetic projects. Today, the challenge is getting projects into the water, assessing their environmental contributions and effects, and getting on with the promise of creating energy supplies in a manner that provides an overall price for performance win.
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Sean is co-founder and president of the Ocean Renewable Energy Coalition and principal of Symmetrix Public Relations & Communication Strategies where he serves the non-profit, energy, and human resources sectors. He has provided public affairs and communications support for energy projects in 18 states during the past twenty years.

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