March 10, 2010

A New Look at Water Power

Justin Katz

This is intriguing:

One of the interesting side effects of last year's stimulus bill was $400 million in funding for ARPA-E, the civilian, energy-focused cousin of DARPA. And in this week's first ever ARPA-E conference, MIT chemist Dan Nocera showed how well he put that stimulus money to use by highlighting his new photosynthetic process. Using a special catalyst, the process splits water into oxygen and hydrogen fuel efficiently enough to power a home using only sunlight and a bottle of water.

I'll even give the government credit for funding scientific research (although I'd argue that the prospect of owning such a technology would be very attractive to private investors). Regarding the relevance of "stimulus," I'd imagine that the net number of jobs in the economy would decrease if energy could be harvested in such a way.

The bigger consideration, though, is that this sort of breakthrough stands as evidence against investing a state's entire economy on a particular industry, like wind and wave power, for instance. Government operatives are not well suited to predict the market (if they were, they wouldn't be government operatives), and even putting aside state-to-state competition for industry leadership, aligning local policies and taxation with a particular technology leaves substantial risk that the another region will win the roll of the innovation dice.

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I can't believe RI is putting so much effort into banking on a single alternate energy resource, offshore wind, that it untested and by far the most expensive to build and maintain. The Deepwater wind and National Grid agreed purchase price of $0.244/kwh is ludicrous and when spread out across all the RI rate payers will stall business growth and drive additional business out of the state.

Recent statements at the RIPUC public comment hearings were reported in the Providence Journal:

"The executive director of the Energy Council of Rhode Island, a nonprofit organization known as TEC-RI that represents 35 of the state’s biggest manufacturers, universities and hospitals, testified on Tuesday against an agreement under which Deepwater Wind would sell power generated by the offshore wind farm at more than twice the price National Grid pays for electricity from conventional sources.

John Farley told the state Public Utilities Commission that the higher price of power from the wind farm would be a burden on the members of TEC-RI that collectively employ 50,000 people in the state, including Hasbro and Rhode Island Hospital.

For example, Toray Plastics America, which operates a factory in North Kingstown that is the largest consumer of electricity in the state, would have to pay an additional $260,000 annually if the proposed contract were to go into effect. Brown University would face an increase of $200,000 a year.

“We have concluded that this contract includes a price that is so high that it more than negates any other potential attractive features, such as job creation, added local supply and environmental protection,” Farley said."

What would be better suited for Block Island and RI with less environmental impact and visual blight would be the Ocean Power Technologies PowerBuoy® system which the US Navy has tested with the Marine Corps in Hawaii and is now deploying the technology. These PowerBuoy® ride 14 feet out of the water looking like a regular ocean buoy but generate significant electrical energy from wave action. Connected together via undersea cables they create a scalable megawatt generating farm. Electric costs are estimated to be $0.15/kwh to the electric grid.

An offshore ocean wind farm company tried to build an offshore wind farm in Hawaiian waters in the middle of a whale sanctuary. They were chased out of state!

Hawaii in its quest to reduce imported oil by 70% by 2030 is utilizing a number of different alternate technologies and not banking on one source. As a matter of fact all of Hawaii is a living alternate energy laboratory with the National Energy Laboratory of Hawaii. Hydrogen fuel and fuel cells producing power from water and electricity has been in testing and production use in Hawaii for years. The following are some links of interest:

Hawaii is Paradise for Green-Tech Entrepreneurs

Hawaii's Energy Future

Hawaii Hydrogen Power Park

Air Force Solar Powered Deployable Hydrogen Fueling Station

Posted by: Ken at March 10, 2010 4:12 PM

Funding civilian research is not a legitimate function of government. Military research is a different issue, as it has a clearly defined purpose and the most objective test possible - the success and life safety of our armed forces personnel and national security.

There is plenty of venture capital money going into alternative energy. The problem is not money, it is finding enough people with good ideas. The risk of this ARPA-E being politicized, and taxpayers' money distributed to political allies regardless of scientific merit, is to great to allow this entity to exist.

Posted by: BobN at March 10, 2010 5:25 PM

Saying that wind power is untested and then promoting a completely untested (in large scale use) technology makes me think you might have a financial interest....

I'm for exploring all the options, but wind power is WAY past exploration and has been working well in Denmark for decades. I traveled there extensively and saw thousands of wind machines, which provide a large percentage of their electric.

RI is blessed with some of the best wind conditions on the east coast. We should develop them, and as more and more capacity is built, the price will come down.

Most homeowners and businesses can offset some of the higher cost of clean electric by using conservation and efficiency.

I feel for those that can't - however, every place in the country cannot have dirt cheap electric. Google, for instance, is building major data centers in the Pacific Northwest due to cheap hydro. You can't win 'em all.

Posted by: Stuart at March 10, 2010 5:28 PM


Ha! I'm retired! I have no vested financial interest plus I moved out of RI due to the on going stupidy!

When I refer to offshore wind power being untested it is the fact that no one has constructed an offshore wind farm in USA waters to date.

There was an attempt to construct an offshore wind farm in Hawaii back in 2007 but the west coast company placed it in the middle of a whale sanctuary and the cost per Kwh was outrageous! They were sent packing back to the mainland.

Cape wind project has been stalled and Blue-H seems to have a great alternative in their design of a floating offshore wind generator platform with minimal environmental impact that has been successfully tested in Europe verses a fixed ocean platform, and an offshore farm currently under development. They also have designed their system for winter weather with minimal expensive support maintenance.

Deepwater Wind rate per Kwh is astronomical for the 8 turbine systems! $0.244/Kwh with annual raises. As reported in the Providence Journal "Toray Plastics America, which operates a factory in North Kingstown that is the largest consumer of electricity in the state, would have to pay an additional $260,000 annually if the proposed contract were to go into effect. Brown University would face an increase of $200,000 a year."

That excessive rate will impact each and every small and large business in RI which some will not be able to pass on to consumers meaning layoffs or moving out of the State of RI because of the cost of doing business. The cost of attending Brown University and all higher learning will rise meaning those students unable to pay will transfer to other schools of higher learning. RI will suffer a brain drain.

The trickledown effect will become disastrous to the state.

But wait these 8 turbines is suppose to create 500 high paying jobs and position RI as a leader in green energy! It's a great trade off...500 to potential loss of maybe 8,000 jobs and college students plus business small and large!

Posted by: Ken at March 10, 2010 6:44 PM

I can't speak to one particular project, but the fact is that building a wind farm off RI cannot be too much different than in the North Sea! Pretty tough conditions there, and they have it down to a science. In fact, it is not rocket science - it is pretty much a mature technology.

I'm not sure where those high prices come from, but I think that is less than Block Island pays now....

But the bigger picture is that you have to start somewhere. I cannot imagine how one small project is going to raise the price that one factory pays too much - when said factory probably gets most of their power from coal and nat gas plants. In fact, a plant that uses that much electric might be able to put in micro -generation using nat gas.

And, again, every place in the USA cannot provide very low cost electric. There is a supply-demand equation, and with high population and more efficient residents (RI and MA use the least energy per capita of any states), we are willing to pay more....without a lot left over for the bulk users.

In a more clear fashion, we cannot base the energy future of RI on a single plastic factory or other high users.

Much of the writing is already on the wall. RI will have to make a future NOT in big industry, but in tourism, alt energy and more intelligent industries (higher tech, brainpower, etc.).

Change is the only thing which is always a more big foundrys are going to locate in RI.

On a related matter, much of the electric we get in the bay area is generated by dirty coal imported from vast strip mines in Central America.....that's not exactly a clean and green way to a sustainable future.

Posted by: Stuart at March 10, 2010 6:57 PM


Those high prices are National Grid passing on the difference in the price it pays now and the price it will have to pay Deepwater Wind plus the automatic annual rate increase every year spreading across all the RI rate payers. At first it was reported residential rate payers would only see a rise in monthly rates of $1.60 but they down played small, large RI business and colleges and universities.

Don't forget, there has been no solid estimate of the cost of the cable from mainland to Block Island plus grid infrastructure upgrades that must also be added in.

RI OCEAN is trying to piggyback on the power cable laying adding to the cost by trying to run a fiber cable out to Block Island to upgrade Internet connectivity for the school and residences!

The number increases are coming from the individual company and university that recalculated their rates for testimony to the RIPUC and reported in the newspaper.

Deepwater Wind has never constructed an offshore ocean tower and their partner First Wind has only constructed land based wind farms a completely different environment.

Deepwater Wind technology is build in place with expensive hard to rent ocean crane barges not only for construction but also for maintenance. They are using a balanced three blade system needing expensive crane system.

Conversely Blue-H is build on land an tow into place. When maintenance is needed, tow back to port, do maintenance and then tow back into place plus they are using a two blade system instead of three blade system negating the need for expensive cranes.
Hawaii is the most fossil fuel dependant state in the nation with 90% imported oil and coal but we are now taking charge of our life and incomes with reducing our imports 70% by 2030. We are doing it the smart way by weighing all objectives and alternatives. Letting each system test out in the environment before going into production with the exception of one, offshore wind farms.

As I indicated above, Hawaii is an alternate energy technology wonderland with all the systems in test.

Hawaii is the only state in the nation that manufactures is own synthetic natural gas!

The people here with the #1 state business as tourism values the spectacular views provided to the tourist!

Posted by: Ken at March 10, 2010 8:10 PM


APAR-E is (fashioned after DARPA where do you think the Internet came from?) a division within the Department of Energy (DOE).

Its mission is: "ARPA-E’s mission is to fund projects that will develop transformational technologies that reduce America’s dependence on foreign energy imports; reduce U.S. energy related emissions (including greenhouse gasses); improve energy efficiency across all sectors of the U.S. economy and ensure that the U.S. maintains its leadership in developing and deploying advanced energy technologies."

Hawaii has a close working relationship and signed agreements with the DOE and we have the National Energy Laboratories of Hawaii supporting a technological wonderland of alternate energy projects. State of Hawaii is a test bed for the rest of the nation in reduction of imported fossil fuels which Hawaii depends 90% on for its energy needs.

Hawaii Electric Company already holds the patient on "Grid Shock Absorber" a device for interfacing non-standard alternate energy systems to standard electrical grids. Hawaii is currently real time testing the smart electrical grid and working with active storage of power from wind farms to smooth out flow of power to grid.

There are ongoing wave energy generators, deep water air conditioning, ocean thermal differential electrical power generators, geothermal power generators, photovoltaic hydrogen power generators, photovoltaic farms, wind farms, solar high pressure steam energy farms, algae to biodiesel farms, biodiesel electrical generators, electric cars, 300 mile car batteries per charge, city-wide solar electric car battery charger infrastructure, solar heating/cooling, solar hot water and a host of other alternate technology ideas, designs and systems under test supported by the DOE in Hawaii.

Why is this happening in Hawaii? It's because Hawaii has a Republican Governor that made energy independence a prime goal for her second term and because each island has its own independent electrical grid so testing can be accomplished without affecting the whole island or other islands.

The entrepreneurs and private funded projects with the help of DOE and APAR-E are building and developing a better future for America and its independence from foreign oil.

Posted by: Ken at March 10, 2010 9:11 PM

Ah, now I understand...

When a Republican gov. does something with alt energy, it is good.

When a Dem Gov does something, it must be a waste.

I catch on fast.

Posted by: Stuart at March 10, 2010 9:37 PM


This is not a case of Republican verses Democrat (BTY the Republican Gov. works close with DEM controlled GA in this state) but the only state in the nation that is 90% dependent on imported fossil fuel and the case was made to the DOE, National Energy Laboratory and President George Bush that the state as a whole was an example of the USA being manipulated by foreign oil interests.

$7 billion a year of the state's finances was being drained to support the purchase of imported oil.

Hawaii was designated as a test state to explore alternate energy and to lower its carbon foot print as a model to the rest of the 49 states.

Because Hawaii is the most isolated population center in the world benchmarks and data differentials are easily recorded and documented because we have some of the highest gasoline and electric prices in the USA!

Posted by: Ken at March 10, 2010 11:16 PM

Ken, I trust you cut and pasted that from some .gov website in an ironic spirit.

The verbiage confirms to me that ARPA-E is a giant earmark machine with no legitimate function. Politicizing venture capital is a socialist/fascist exercise, not an American one.

I subscribe to a service that emails me daily a summary of every significant venture capital done in the country. There is a ton of money going into the alternative energy sector from both VCs and large energy companies. The limitation is not funding; it is intellectual bandwidth, and no amount of money is going to make these geniuses come up with new ideas any faster.

As to Denmark, while they may be using a lot of wind, it is at a very high cost and they are not happy with the economic result, being one of the most high-cost electricity countries in Europe.

Posted by: BobN at March 11, 2010 8:25 AM

"Most homeowners and businesses can offset some of the higher cost of clean electric by using conservation and efficiency."

Implicit in this the idea that as electricity prices rise, sonsumers will use less. Although "conservation" may sound good, it is a euphenism for "use less". To me, that represents a decline in the standard of living.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at March 11, 2010 2:45 PM


Yes the ARPA-E mission statement was cut and paste directly from their web site and that is why I surrounded by quote marks.

If you go to the ARPA-E web site and look at the RFPs you will see a number of experimental alternate energy projects that have both civilian and military applications.

Similar type projects are currently in proof of concept stage, moving into production or commercial stages at the National Energy Laboratory of Hawaii, US Air Force at Hickham AFB or the Marine Corps Base Hawaii in conjunction with Department of Energy (DOE).

Northrop Grumman is moving from proof of concept to commercial production of a Ocean thermo differential 10 megawatt generator with a by-product of desalinated water and the first totally self sustaining integrated algae to biodiesel commercial electric generating plant will be coming online in the near future with the help of Royal Dutch Shell.

We in Hawaii are blessed to be used as a national alternate energy test bed. There have been a lot of first in nation alternate energy systems developed here!

Yes I agree with you that throwing money at private commercial entities does not always bring better and creative ideas that are productive but if it were not for DARPA we would not have the Internet or the stealth technology for the B2, F-117 and a host of other think tank Federal funded play toys.

ARPA-E residing within the DOE is suppose to stimulate alternate energy development creativity and systems applications in the private sector.

There are still a lot of uncharted waters in the alternate energy field.

I am not a big proponent of offshore wind. It has its applications but there are good places to use it with a nice fit and there are bad places to try to make it work. As it currently stands, it is too costly however, I think Blue-H application is an economic solution in lowering the cost but you still have visual pollution near shore.

Posted by: Ken at March 11, 2010 5:24 PM

As I wrote before, DARPA is different because our military is different from the civilian government in several important ways. So I will not accept any argument that ARPA-E, or any other government progam, is analogous to DARPA.

Northrop-Grumman's project may be great, but the only reason they are taking government funds is that such funds are available. Believe me, if the project's technology is so promising, Northrop would find private capital to realize it. There are several available funding models for such ventures that are routinely used in high tech industries. There is no legitimate reason for government funding or other involvement in such activities.

Posted by: BobN at March 11, 2010 7:03 PM


#1 sorry, I confused the wrong company, it's NOT Northrop-Grumman (who is also doing energy projects here) but Lockheed-Martin that is building the 10 megawatt ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) generator.

#2 I never indicated there were Federal funds involved in the commercial project. I don't know where you got that idea.

Proof of concept development and design and several operating OTECs at various energy outputs has long been accomplished at the National Energy Laboratory of Hawaii (NELHA) with support from USDOE using modified US Navy ship and barge.

This is Lockheed-Martin building the OTEC with its own and investor funds. but it got the research kick start from USDOE and NELHA using Federal and state public funds.

Actually an online message from the Gerson Lehman Group that amounts to a solicitation of investor interest in a 100 MW OTEC pilot plan in Hawaii was sent out on behalf of Lockheed-Martin.

Posted by: Ken at March 11, 2010 7:59 PM

Oh. I thought you citing this as an example of ARPA-E success. But you write in your last comment: "but it got the research kick start from USDOE and NELHA using Federal and state public funds."

My point exactly. Government funding wasn't necessary, it was merely available at a lower cost than private funding.

I sure wish some of that cheap (or free, as a grant) government funding were available to kick start my business. Especially since government policy and regulation is the largest single cause of my customers' cutbacks over the past 18 months.

Posted by: BobN at March 11, 2010 8:25 PM


The Lockheed-Martin proof of concept development and design tests of OTEC started in the late 1970 supported by USDOE and NELHA grants and test facilities.

One of the Hawaii driving forces is the State of Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism (DBEDT) which is like RI Economic Development Corporation (RIEDC) but takes a far more active role in shaping and supporting economic activity in Hawaii.

ARPA-E was established in 2007 to operate on the DARPA model within the USDOE and didn't receive any funding for grants till 2009.

I'm more for the end result. Lockheed-Martin is building with private funds a 10 MW OTEC that will help lower my electric bill and there is a solicitation out for building a 100 MW OTEC plus we will have a source of drinking water with no offshore wind turbines. It can't get any better than that!

Posted by: Ken at March 11, 2010 11:30 PM
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