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Breakthrough Energy Ventures’ and Microsoft’s disappointing bets on a sustainable future.

The recent announcements of the past few days of Microsoft and Breakthrough Energy Ventures with respect to deep-water datacenters and power storage come tantalizing close and yet excruciatingly wide of the mark with respect to the energy miracle Bill Gates predicted in a 2016 interview is coming, and is going to change the world.

Breakthrough Energy Ventures is a coalition spearheaded by Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, committed to building technologies that change the way we live, eat, work, travel and make things so we can stop the devastating impacts of climate change.  

One of the companies in which Gates and Bezos will be investing in is Quidnet, which claims, “pumped hydro is by far the largest and most cost-effective form of energy storage today”, which is a fiction.

Hands down the oceans are the largest storehouses of energy on the planet. They hold 93 percent of the heat of warming and this heat will find its way back to the surface triggering even more warming than we are currently experiencing.

The science indicates that the thermal inertia of oceans allows us a lead time of about 32 years before the existing heat resurfaces, at which time the planet will be 62 percent hotter than today, without the addition of more carbon, and at 2-degree Celsius, scientists warn we are in serious trouble.  

Microsoft has announced it is testing the feasibility of situating and cooling its servers in the ocean depths. As they point out, the world’s oceans at depth are consistently cold, offering ready and free access to cooling, which is one of the biggest costs for land-based datacenters. Underwater datacenters could also serve as anchor tenants for marine renewable energy such as offshore wind farms or banks of tidal turbines, allowing the two industries to evolve in lockstep.

What they fail to acknowledge, however, is the same devices that direct heat away from the central processing units of their servers, heat pipes, which move heat through the phase changes of the working fluid they contain, can also direct the entire heat load of global warming to a depth of 1,000 meters where, in the tropics, a portion of the heat can be converted in turbines to vital energy.

Heat relocation of this kind would extend the current 32-year grace period with global warming to 250 years, at which time, given that the diffusion rate of ocean heat is 1 centimeter a year, the heat can be recycled.

Just as putting data centers at the bottom of the ocean would produce a slight warming of the deep water so will OTEC. Currently the surface is warming at a rate of 0.2°C per decade so moving this heat to a depth of 1000 meters, on account of diffusion, would distribute it through the water column over a period of 250 years and would neither be a serious problem for the environment, nor would it deplete the OTEC resource.

The thermodynamic efficiency of heat conversion to work with heat pipe OTEC, given the differential between tropical surface temperatures and deep-water, is about 7.6 percent.

The currently estimated imbalance between incoming and outgoing energy at the top of the atmosphere is about 0.58 plus/minus 0.15 watts per square meter. Since the surface of the earth is 510 million square kilometers the amount of energy accumulating in our environment due to global warming is about 295 terawatts.

As the following triptych of the world’s major oceans shows this energy doesn’t accumulate uniformly.

It is dissipated at the poles and accumulates in the tropics, which is the only place where such diffuse energy can be concentrated sufficiently to produce useful work.

Globally, the world consumes 18 terawatts of primary energy a year, with 78 percent of this being derived from fossil fuels.

Since most of the heat of warming is accumulating in the ocean we can relocate about 274 terawatts by converting 21 terawatts to electrical energy and the residual 253 terawatts will be available in another 250 years to produce additional work.

In fact, the heat of warming can be recycled 13 times constantly providing one and a half times more energy than we are currently deriving from fossil fuels, 13 times longer than the entire 250-year span of the fossil fuel era.

The other company Breakthrough Energy Ventures is investing in is Form Energy, which claims, “If we want to power the world mainly with renewables we need to find a way to overcome that variability, so we have energy when we need it”.

Ocean thermal energy conversion is a constant source energy and even after the current heat load of global warming is converted to useful work it can continue to be a source of a least of 7 terawatts of power for as long as the sun shines and the icecaps and thaw annually.     

Scientists have predicted that unless radical improvements are made in the way we design computers, by 2040, computer chips will need more electricity than our global energy production can deliver let alone for any other purpose.

The following is a design for a grazing OTEC platform that produces 250 megawatts of power from ocean thermal energy conversion as well as solar, wind and wave energy.

Not only does it provide the sustainable energy that is required to services chips and the rest of the world's electectrial needs, it cools the earth's surface, short-circuits the movement of heat from the tropics to the poles where it melts ice, where the coefficient of thermal expansion of ocean water is half at a depth of 1000 meters it is as the tropical surface and where ocean-derived electrical energy can be converted in an electrochemical process that produces hydrogen by the conversion of carbon dioxide to a base that neutralizes ocean acidity.

The following is a costing of such a plant and comparisons for smaller and larger structures.

Assumptions:                                                                                                                                     

  1. All other plants are of the floating ship design.                                                    
  2. The cost of the 100MW plant is 66 percent of the base cost of the conventional 100 MW plant of $4,000/kW.                                                                                                    
  3. Each doubling of the size of a 100MW plant lowers plant cost by 22%.             
  4. Cost of ship designs by N. Srinivasan and M. Sridhar, "Study on the Cost Effective Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion Power Plant," Offshore Technology, pp. 1-13, 2010.
  5. All cost assumptions from MIT thesis, Assessment of Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion by Shylesh Muralidharan, B. Tech. Mechanical Engineering, Pondicherr University.                       
  6. Revenue from plants is 1.38 times the current revenue from primary energy estimated at $6 trillion.
  7. The environmental benefit is 20% of the current environmental cost of business estimated in 2013 at $4.7 trillion/yr.                                                                                                                                  

At 28% of the current cost of energy with the 200 MW unit, notwithstanding fossil subsidies and the environmental damage they cause, this is energy that makes the other environmental imperatives finally affordable.       

Hopefully, with their next effort, Microsoft and Breakthrough Energy Ventures will be closer to mark in their search for the energy miracle that is needed?

It is out there, perhaps even hidden on this page?

Content Discussion

Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird

Happy to be joining energycentral. Hopefully, the initial offering is informative?

Diarmuid  Foley's picture
Diarmuid Foley

eh.....18 Terawatt hours is not the World's primary energy consumption, this is out by 6 orders of magnitude at least

 

Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird

Currently, our civilization consumes around 17.7 Terawatts of power taken from all sources of energy, namely oil, coal, natural gas and alternative energies such as solar, wind, hydropower and others. 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_energy_consumption

1 Terawatt can power 10 billion, 100 watt bulbs at the same time!

 

 

Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird

Diarmuid, I think you are thinking of electricity alone.

The world final energy consumption for 2014 was 109,613 TWh or about 29.5% less than the total supply but electricity generation is only about a fifth of this at 23,816 TWh. 

Diarmuid  Foley's picture
Diarmuid Foley

Jim, You mean 17,7 TW per hr right ? So 155 PWh or 557 ExaJ annually ( ~ 13,300 mtoe annually ) . Apologies I haven’t seen energy consumption expressed as TW-year before. 

 

Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird

Diarmuid, Professor Greg Rau of UCSC · Institute of Marine Sciences and  I have a paper awaiting publication over the same issue.  In the draft we used  TW/yr whereas, the reviewer pointed out the correct term is "TW".

As he put it, the value of "31536000 seconds in a year" has units of s/year, so when you divide 9.33e21 J/year by this value, the years cancel out, leaving you with J/s.  So 2.9596e+14 Joule/second equals 296 TW.