As nations search for energy independence while protecting the environment, an American company has an option that one man describes as rooted in love.
“This is a love story because I love humanity, and this technology loves humanity also,” said John McGilvray, business developer for Sea Solar Power, Inc.
This organization creates an alternative energy source by placing floating vessels in the ocean and taking solar power from the sea to create electricity.
“Get energy from the sun that is stored in the sea. It is very simple and very elegant. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” he said.
Sea Solar power was formed by James Hilbert Anderson and his son in 1972. The two began researching ocean thermal energy earlier in 1962 using knowledge Anderson gained from his
work designing refrigeration and heat power cycles.
“This type of technology wasn’t available to us 20 years ago, but it is today because we built it. We had to invent it and Hilbert was just the person to do it because of his background,” said McGilvray.
Over the years, the company has been testing and developing the technology waiting for a time when it would become an affordable and likely energy source.
“It was not possible to do this before because we didn’t have the compressor, pumps and heat exchange technology,” McGilvray said. “Hilbert was the world’s leading authority in all these subjects.”
Now the company has a design, and is ready to move forward to make sea solar power a likelihood.
The proposed plant is composed of large compressors that work in a closed cycle system. Beneath the floating ocean vessel is a centrifugal pump that pumps water from a depth of one kilometer.
“This is the most powerful pump known to mankind. I only know of three places where this pump exists, atomic submarines, Saudi Arabia and Sea Solar Power.”
The natural properties of water allows it to separate by temperature and density. Water at the surface is heated by the sun to 82 degrees F. or 28 degrees C., and the water 1 kilometer down is a temperature of 42 degrees F. or 6 degrees C., the company notes.
The technology only works in the tropical seas, 23 degrees above the equator and 23 degrees below the equator, McGilvray explained.
“This happens to be where the greatest need for both water and electricity exists for all of humanity,” he said.
This is because resources are scarce in these areas, he added.
The surface is skimmed for the hot water which is used to change propylene into vapor. The vapor turns a turbine generator to make electricity. The cold water pumped from below is then used to condense the propylene back into a liquid state, and the cycle is repeated.
The compressor circulates the propylene millions of times just like freon is circulated in a refrigerator.
“I tell people this is not rocket science, this is refrigeration technology,” he said.
What can be produced is electricity and drinking water. The largest design, a 100 megawatt electrical plant, can create 100 megawatts of electricity with a daily byproduct of 32 million gallons of drinking water.
This energy could power 100,000 United States homes including those with heated swimming pools, said McGilvray.
“Can you imagine what this would do for Costa Rica? It would go at least twice as far or maybe three times as far,” he said.
As another option, this same design can also produce 140 million gallons of distilled water every 24 hours.
“To put that into perspective, Singapore consumes 140 million gallons of water a day. The population of Singapore is about 2.7 million people,” McGilvray said.
Instead of using the water to drink, electrolysis can be applied to the water to separate the oxygen and hydrogen atoms to produce the gas as another byproduct.
“When you pump water from a depth of 1 kilometer, you circulate phytoplankton. If you pump phytoplankton to the surface, it becomes fish food,” McGilvray said.
“Phytoplankton produces 90 percent of the oxygen you breathe. The additional 10 percent comes from oxygen and trees,” he added.
With all the benefits, it is easy to wonder what are the drawbacks to ocean thermal energy.
“Scientists have tried to find a drawback and they can’t because we don’t consume anything. We just constantly recycle,” said McGilvray. “We simply do not affect the environment at all because all we are doing is circulating water. We are not using anything up.”
As for the drinking water, he said what is taken would be equivalent to filling a bucket out of the Niagara, and what is used would eventually go back to the rivers, lakes and oceans.
However, he mentioned that a thing that could prevent countries from using the ocean thermal energy is the cost or the fact that they can’t afford a distribution system for the electricity.
McGilvray said that the whole process would be a benefit to places like Costa Rica where populations get a large portion of their energy from hydropower.
“In doing so they flood land that could be used for agricultural purposes or land that can be preserved for fauna,” McGilvray said. “You kill a lot of things when you flood lands, and you put a lot of weight in one place and they have proven this causes earthquakes.”
“Not so much in Costa Rica, but in Panamá they have displaced large populations of people, washing away people’s homes, livelihoods, medical facilities and schools,” he continued.
“The only land use we have is the cable that distributes electricity, and everyone can benefit from that without displacing people or destroying animal species,” the Alabama native concluded.
One thing hindering the technology from becoming widely used is the reliance on the current system. The rising cost of oil is making it more possible, but you still have to overcome the existing system, he said.
“We’re talking about changing a system, and we are resistant to change,” said McGilvray. “If we build a plant, we can use it as a demonstrator and people can see it work.”
It is his mission to communicate the process, and get companies to buy into the project. For McGilvray, the big picture is worth the work. It is a job he has made personal.