Harnessing the Power of the Gulf Stream Florida researchers will soon test a concept that has long been dreamed of: harnessing the ocean's seemingly limitless power as a source of electricity. They are developing underwater turbines to tap the energy of the Gulf Stream.
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Harnessing the Power of the Gulf Stream

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Harnessing the Power of the Gulf Stream

Harnessing the Power of the Gulf Stream

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And in Washington, D.C. recently, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne made an announcement that clears the way to tap an enormous source of renewable energy - the oceans.

Secretary DIRK KEMPTHORNE (U.S. Department of the Interior): For the first time, we will offer regulations to guide the use of wind, wave and current resources on the 1.8 billion acres of Outer Continental Shelf on the coasts of the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf Coast.

MONTAGNE: In South Florida, researchers are already working to harness the power of the Gulf Stream.

From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN: Director Rick Driscoll says the Center of Excellence in Ocean Energy Technology is in a great location. It's just 15 miles from the Gulf Stream.

Mr. RICK DRISCOLL (Florida Atlantic University): This is actually the closest location at any place in the planet of a major ocean current by a low center here that needs the power right now. We've got no place to build power plants, yet we're growing, you know, Florida's growing by a thousand people a day.

ALLEN: Driscoll's answer: underwater turbines moored in the heart of the Gulf Stream. He believes, ultimately, the current - which flows at eight billion gallons per minute - could yield as much energy as several nuclear plants, providing a third of Florida's power.

Florida Atlantic University established the center last year for one purpose: to explore ways to tap the ocean's potential as renewable energy resource. It was started with a $5 million grant from the state of Florida.

Inside, the center's offices and workshop area share a common space. Desks and cubicles sit alongside scientific equipment, giant floats, and what to me looks like a large propeller.

Mr. DRISCOLL: These are the rotor blades. And...

ALLEN: Now this, this is a large rotor blade. This has got to be, what, 10-feet across?

Mr. DRISCOLL: Yeah, (unintelligible) diameter.

ALLEN: It's a small rotor blade.

Mr. DRISCOLL: Very small.

ALLEN: The full-size turbines will be much larger, with rotors 100 feet in diameter. This rotor is for the small prototype Rick Driscoll and his team are building. Pieces of it - the generator, pressure tank and housing - are laid out on the floor. It's nearly ready for testing. Driscoll eventually envisions a field of turbines moored 1,000 feet below the surface, just off the Florida coast in the heart of the Gulf Stream. There are currently dozens of energy companies, he says, that are developing plans to harness the Gulf Stream. The researchers at The Center of Excellence in Ocean Energy Technology, he says, are studying the best ways to do it and looking for possible negative consequences.

Mr. DRISCOLL: Some of the worst-case things we can see is what people have coined the Cuisinart effect in which the fish will come through and get chopped up, attract the other bait, would then attract more fish and you've got a sustaining Cuisinart effect. Now, we don't think that's going to happen, but it's a possibility and we need to monitor it.

ALLEN: Driscoll says his team is also looking to see what effect the turbines could possibly have on the power and flow of the Gulf Stream. He cites hydrographic data reassuringly to say it looks unlikely to have much of an impact. And even the most optimistic don't hope to extract more than a third of the Gulf Stream's total energy.

(Soundbite of sparking noise)

ALLEN: A few steps outside, welders are working on one of the most massive parts of the Gulf Stream turbine. It's a huge steel buoy that, as project director Gabriel Alsenas points out, is shaped like a ship so it remains stable in the current.

Mr. GABRIEL ALSENAS (Project Director): And what they're doing now is they're adding not only an extra sort of emergency buoyancy - we call them fenders - on the side, but also to provide some protection.

ALLEN: The buoy is part of a system, tethered to a 30,000-pound anchor, that Alsenas says will hold the prototype turbine right in the heart of the Gulf Stream.

Mr. ALSENAS: The turbines going to be approximately 30 feet under water, spinning approximately 60 revolutions per minute. And this gives us a great exercise in figuring out exactly what effects the ocean's going to have on it and this is going to have on the ocean and its environment.

ALLEN: Weather and federal regulations permitting, researchers here hope to begin testing their prototype turbine in January or February. If all goes well, they eventually will develop a full-sized turbine and maintain an area in the Gulf Stream that will be used as a test field.

For center director Rick Driscoll, this project is just the beginning of an industry that he believes has great potential not just for Florida, but for the world. Driscoll says his center now is beginning to study an even more powerful potential energy source, it's the large reservoir of cold water deep in the oceans. One obvious use he says would be to use the cold water in air conditioning.

Mr. DRISCOLL: But then there's temperature difference between the warm surface water and the cold deep water which you can actually use in thermodynamic, thermal electric and other process as to generate electricity directly. That ocean thermal resource is probably the largest renewable energy source available anywhere.

ALLEN: Driscoll says by investing in ocean energy technology, Florida will do more than just fill its power needs. It will create jobs and make the state a leader in an emerging industry.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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