OTEC- Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion is a form of Solar Thermal Energy technology that essentally uses the ocean as a solar collector. OTEC takes advantage of the small temperature differential that exists between the warm surface of the sea and the cooler water at the bottom. In deep waters in excess of 1000 meters this difference is as much as 20 degrees C.

The oceans cover a little more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface. This makes them the world’s largest solar energy collector and energy storage system. On an average day, 60 million square kilometers (23 million square miles) of tropical seas absorb an amount of solar radiation equal in heat content to about 250 billion barrels of oil. If less than one-tenth of one percent of this stored solar energy could be converted into electric power, it would supply more than 20 times the total amount of electricity consumed in the United States on any given day.

Temperature Gradient illustrative map for OTEC Ocean Power Magazine


OTEC, or ocean thermal energy conversion, is an energy technology that converts solar radiation to electric power. OTEC systems use the ocean’s natural thermal gradient—the fact that the ocean’s layers of water have different temperatures—to drive a power-producing cycle. As long as the temperature between the warm surface water and the cold deep water differs by about 20°C (36°F), an OTEC system can produce a significant amount of power. The oceans are thus a vast renewable resource, with the potential to help us produce billions of watts of electric power. This potential is estimated to be about 1013 watts of baseload power generation, according to some experts. The cold, deep seawater used in the OTEC process is also rich in nutrients, and it can be used to culture both marine organisms and plant life near the shore or on land.

The economics of energy production today have delayed the financing of a permanent, continuously operating OTEC plant. However, OTEC is very promising as an alternative energy resource for tropical island communities that rely heavily on imported fuel. OTEC plants in these markets could provide islanders with much-needed power, as well as desalinated water and a variety of mariculture products.

Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

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