Ocean Thermal Power History and Arguments For and Against Part 1

About the arguments for and against the use of ocean thermal power as well as history and development of the alternative energy source.



An ocean thermal power (OTP) plant is basically a large heat-powered engine built either on a platform in the ocean or on the seashore. The plant operates by extracting some of the solar energy stored in the warm surface waters of tropical or near-tropical oceans.

The French scientist Jacques d'Arsonval first recognized in 1881 that differences in the temperatures of water found at different depths of the ocean could be made to do useful work. But it was another French scientist, Georges Claude, who built the first OTP plant in the Bay of Matanzas off Cuba in 1929. That device was capable of generating 22 kilowatts before it was destroyed by a hurricane.

In Claude's primitive OTP plant, warm seawater was flashed to steam at low pressure to power a generator. Another much larger OTP plant was later built off the coast of West Africa, but it could not compete with a cheaper source of hydroelectric power.

OTP plants are designed to exploit the nearly 40 deg. F difference between the surface of a tropical ocean and the cold arctic currents flowing deep beneath the waves. But plants proposed today use surface water (at about 77 deg. F) to vaporize a "working fluid," such as ammonia or propane, instead of using low-pressure steam. The chemical vapor, rather than water, spins a turbine to generate electricity. Nowadays, large aerospace and construction companies with architecttel engineering capabilities, like Lockheed, Bechtel, and TRW, are promoting OTP plants and have made detailed engineering studies of them.


Because OTP uses solar energy, it naturally requires no fuel combustion to generate electricity, and therefore it produces no combustion products as pollutants. And unlike other solar energy technologies, it needs neither solar energy collectors nor energy storage facilities. The ocean serves as a giant solar energy collector and storage area for OTP plants. This makes their continuous operation possible and gives the plants a theoretical utilization factor of 90%, as opposed to the actual performance at 55% of most nuclear plants, for example.

Because the oceans receive two and a half times as much solar radiation as do the land masses, an immense amount of energy exists for OTP plants to convert, without danger of exhausting the renewable resource base. The world's tropical oceans have enough warm surface water to produce about a thousand times as much electricity as the U.S. used in 1973.

OTP technology may well yield other benefits besides electricity. The cold, nutrient-rich polar currents raised from the ocean depths by OTP plants could be used to nourish marine life for human consumption or to help rebuild depleted marine populations. Wherever the deep currents well up naturally from the ocean bottoms, sea life thrives in great abundance. Shore-based OTP plants with long cold-water intake pipes might pipe the water into shallow ponds. There it would be warmed by the sun and would nourish an abundance of algal life, the key to much more complex food chains. In successive ponds, scallops, clams, and oysters could be raised on the algae; culled young mollusks could be fed to oysters and crabs. The mineral-rich waters could also be used for a floating biomass farm.

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