FAU Seeks to Capture Gulf Stream’s Power

A research team at Florida Atlantic University wants to float an experimental power turbine in the ocean off Broward County, hoping to use the power of the Gulf Stream to generate sustainable electricity.

The university’s Southeast National Marine Renewable Energy Center has asked the same federal agency that regulates offshore oil drilling for a permit to launch the experiment.

Energy companies already use the rise and fall of tides to generate electricity. But if FAU gets its permit, the university’s team would be the first to try to capture the flow of an ocean current to make electricity, said Susan Skemp, executive director of the FAU energy center. She spoke at a panel on Atlantic ocean currents and climate change at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ conference in Miami.

What does climate change have to do with getting electricity from the sea? Some scientists think climate change may slow down the worldwide flow of ocean currents, with complex, unpredictable effects on weather. A 2007 peer-reviewed study used measurements collected by ships at sea over the past half-century to conclude that the oceans’ “conveyor belt” has already started to slow down.

But two panelists said computer models don’t match up with that study’s results. Christopher Meinen, a NOAA oceanographer, said there’s no clear trend in ocean current measurements taken up until now.

The best computer models “do not agree. The results are all over the place, and it looks pretty embarrassing,” said Igor Kamenkovich, an oceanographer at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

Most of the models predict currents will weaken by the end of this century. But by how much? Nobody knows. Maybe 10 to 50 percent, Kamenkovich thinks. Less than that, Meinen said.

If models clearly showed the Gulf Stream slowing down a lot over the next 90 years, then that would pretty much put the kibosh on generating power from the Gulf Stream. Investors wouldn’t like it, Skemp said.

FAU’s proposed sea-going power plant also raises environmental questions.

The Gulf Stream’s flow produces as much energy as two or three Turkey Point-sized nuclear plants. Researchers want to see if they can capture 5 to 10 percent of that, Skemp said. They also want to know about the effects on marine life — from corals and fish to sea turtles and marine mammals.

In an interview, Skemp said researchers plan to anchor the turbine, attached to a buoy, in a 27-square-mile offshore site where no corals grow. The turbine would turn at the same speed as the Gulf Stream, about 2 ½ nautical miles per hour, so its blades probably won’t be fast enough to injure fish, turtles or other sea creatures, she said.

The floating structures might provide fish habitat, like offshore oil rigs do, she said, or they might disrupt the movement of sea turtles and other migratory sea creatures. Plankton carried along on the Stream might pose a problem, clogging the turbine and making it unusable.

Skemp said the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is conducting an environmental assessment of the FAU proposal. If the permit is granted, several companies have prototypes ready for testing. The test results could help the companies find investors, but the university doesn’t have a financial stake in the outcome, she said.

 

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