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About Ocean Power

Ocean thermal energy conversion

How it works

Ocean thermal energy conversion, or OTEC
Is a way to generate electricity using the temperature difference of seawater at different depths. The method involves pumping cold water from the ocean depths (as deep as 1 km) to the surface and extracting energy from the flow of heat between the cold water and warm surface water.

OTEC utilizes the temperature difference that exists between deep and shallow waters — within 20° of the equator in the tropics — to run a heat engine. Because the oceans are continually heated by the sun and cover nearly 70% of the Earth's surface, this temperature difference contains a vast amount of solar energy which could potentially be tapped for human use. If this extraction could be done profitably on a large scale, it could be a solution to some of the human population's energy problems. The total energy available is one or two orders of magnitude higher than other ocean energy options such as wave power, but the small size of the temperature difference makes energy extraction difficult and expensive. Hence, existing OTEC systems have an overall efficiency of only 1 to 3%.

The concept of a heat engine is very common in engineering, and nearly all energy utilized by humans uses it in some form. A heat engine involves a device placed between a high temperature reservoir (such as a container) and a low temperature reservoir. As heat flows from one to the other, the engine extracts some of the heat in the form of work. This same general principle is used in steam turbines and internal combustion engines, while refrigerators reverse the natural flow of heat by 'spending' energy. Rather than using heat energy from the burning of fuel, OTEC power draws on temperature differences caused by the sun's
warming of the ocean surface.

Some energy experts believe that if it could become cost-competitive with conventional power technologies, OTEC could produce gigawatts of electrical power. Bringing costs into line is still a huge challenge, however. All OTEC plants require an expensive, large diameter intake pipe, which is submerged a mile or more into the ocean's depths, to bring very cold water to the surface.
Depending on the location

Land based plant
Shelf based plant
Floating plant
Submerged plant ( conceptual )

Depending on the cycle used

Open cycle
Closed cycle
Hybrid cycle

This cold seawater is an integral part of each of the three types of OTEC systems: closed-cycle, open-cycle, and hybrid.

Closed-cycle systems use fluid with a low boiling point, such as ammonia, to rotate a turbine to generate electricity. Warm surface seawater is pumped through a heat exchanger where the low-boiling-point fluid is vaporized. The expanding vapor turns the turbo-generator. Then, cold, deep seawater—pumped through a second heat exchanger—condenses the vapor back into a liquid, which is then recycled through the system.

In 1979, the Natural Energy Laboratory and several private-sector partners developed the mini OTEC experiment, which achieved the first successful at-sea production net electrical power from closed-cycle OTEC. The mini OTEC vessel was moored 1.5 miles (2.4 km) off the Hawaiian coast and produced enough net electricity to illuminate the ship's light bulbs, and run its computers and televisions.

Then, the Natural Energy Laboratory in 1999 tested a 250 kW pilot OTEC closed-cycle plant, the largest such plant ever put into operation. Since then, there have been no tests of OTEC technology in the United States, largely because the economics of energy production today have delayed the financing of a permanent, continuously operating plant.

Outside the United States, the government of India has taken an active interest in OTEC technology. India has built and plans to test a 1 MW closed-cycle, floating OTEC plant.


Open-cycle OTEC uses the tropical oceans' warm surface water to make electricity. When warm seawater is placed in a low-pressure container, it boils. The expanding steam drives a low-pressure turbine attached to an electrical generator. The steam, which has left its salt behind in the low-pressure container, is almost pure fresh water. It is condensed back into a liquid by exposure to cold temperatures from deep-ocean water.

In 1984, the Solar Energy Research Institute (now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory) developed a vertical-spout evaporator to convert warm seawater into low-pressure steam for open-cycle plants. Energy conversion efficiencies as high as 97% were achieved for the seawater to steam conversion process (note: the overall efficiency of an OTEC system using a vertical-spout evaporator would still only be a few per cent). In May 1993, an open-cycle OTEC plant at Keahole Point, Hawaii, produced 50,000 watts of electricity during a net power-producing experiment. This broke the record of 40,000 watts set by a Japanese system in 1982.