Forget OPEC. Here comes OTEC. Or does it?

I’m still on hiatus, but I had to take time to add this to my blog, especially since my old posting on peak oil continues to get enough hits to stay on the most popular list–though it is not as popular as “Old men chasing young women: A good thing.”

Today, a daily science news update that I enjoy reading pointed to an upsurge of interest in old-new form of renewable energy: OTEC, or ocean thermal energy conversion.

That caught my eye, because when I was just beginning to sell my writing in the late 1970s, I learned about a Carnegie Mellon University professor who was researching that technology. The result was “OTEC May Save Us From OPEC,” Carnegie-Mellon Alumni News, June 1980.

The brief oil embargoes of the 1970s had alerted us to how sensitive the price of gasoline was at the pump to constrictions in supply. When it surged past $1.00 (horrors!), we consumers in the U.S. began to look seriously at freeing ourselves from dependence on foreign oil, especially from the Middle East.

One promising technological alternative was to take advantage of the temperature gradient between warm surface of the tropical ocean and the much chillier depths. Building a heat engine between the two temperature reservoirs and extracting the energy as electricity seemed simple, at least in principle.

The idea went back to 1881, and nearly a century later the U.S. government finally funded a pilot generator that consisted mainly of sophisticated plumbing. It worked, but the cost of oil stabilized and the urgency faded. In 1995, OTEC faded away completely as oil prices dropped below $20 a barrel.

I don’t have to tell anyone who reads this blog and keeps up with the news that the story of OTEC’s rise and fall is a cautionary tale. Today, even as crude oil prices are dropping below $50 a barrel, we need to remember how close we are to the prices of nearly $150 a barrel–and rising, which will surely be the consequence of the eventual recovery from the current economic woes.

So I urge you to read “Plumbing the oceans could bring limitless clean energy” in the current issue of New Scientist.

Could the title of my 1980 article finally be coming true after 28 years?

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