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Activism

Tapping Undersea Energy, Wind-Style

Ocean turbines (Courtesy FAU Florida Center for Electronic Communications)Imagine a vast source of energy as clean as wind power but without the NIMBY factor of wind farm projects like the one in Cape Cod. The source? South Florida’s Gulf Stream.

Researchers at Florida Atlantic University’s (FAU) recently established Florida Center of Excellence in Ocean Energy Technology are working on a pilot project that would plant test turbines on the ocean floor about 50 meters underwater. The turbines will be placed in the path of the Gulf Stream, a powerful current that flows through the Florida Straits. That current promises to be a massive source of potential energy to Florida residents and businesses: it surges through the ocean at a rate of more than eight billion gallons per minute. That’s more than 30 times the total flow of all the world’s freshwater rivers.

This isn’t the first time anyone’s tried to tap the power of the Gulf Stream, but it is the most realistic and ambitious test yet. Past experiments have depended on simulations, lab tests or short-term turbine deployments that lasted only a few hours. That leaves a lot of unknowns to sort out yet, like how well the turbines will actually perform or what impacts the project might have on the underwater environment. Researchers at Nova Southeastern University’s Oceanographic Center plan to study the effects on marine life, although the turbines are expected to move too slowly to harm any creatures.

Slow, though, doesn’t mean wimpy. The power of the Gulf Stream is expected to generate as much energy as a wind turbine would produce in a 55 mile-per-hour gale. That means each undersea turbine could produce up to three megawatts of power: enough to supply the energy needs of 500 homes.

Another plus for Gulf Stream energy comes from the current’s lower regions, which are made up of cold water flowing from the Arctic. FAU researchers say that chilly flow could be tapped to drive air-conditioning, which currently accounts for up to 45 percent of Florida’s residential electricity consumption.

Rick Driscoll, who directs the Florida Center of Excellence in Ocean Energy Technology, says Gulf Stream energy could supply all of Florida’s energy needs … without aggravating global warming or creating any pollution. It could also create thousands of jobs for the state and provide the power needed to produce potable water, a much-needed resource for the fast-growing, drought-plagued state.

Clean energy, energy independence, jobs and no negative environmental impact? It all sounds almost too good to be true. I’m hoping that Driscoll and his colleagues at FAU can prove that’s not the case.




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