US OPEN funding programme opens doors for tidal and offshore market potential

US renewable energy developers, investors and energy researchers show signs of beneficial change from government financing for ‘transformational projects’ with the University of Houston taking the helm for offshore energy advancement in the Gulf of Mexico.

By K.Steiner-Dicks on Feb 17, 2015

Additional reporting by Jason Deign

There are many communities globally that are not grid connected, but 85% of the world's population lives within 50 miles of an ocean. Marine energy promises an almost limitless supply of energy, but the challenges of turbines surviving offshore ocean conditions are still largely being proven rather than commercialised for the tidal energy sector.

Despite the US trailing behind its UK and European counterparts for developing later stage test sites and grid connections from offshore wind and tidal farms, it looks like the University of Houston in the US state of Texas is going to investigate how the Gulf of Mexico can play a larger part in renewable energy generation given its offshore oil industry roots.

Representatives from various renewable energy sectors in the US have warmly welcomed the announcement of a government funding package aimed at fostering ‘transformational technologies’.

OPEN 2015: the possibilities

The US Department of Energy (DoE) Advanced Research Projects Agency — Energy (ARPA-E) has invited submissions for projects that fall outside the scope of its targeted funding areas.

The USD$125m open funding opportunity announcement (FOA), called OPEN 2015, was unveiled by US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz during a speech on this year’s American energy priorities at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington DC.

It is the third such solicitation issued by ARPA-E, following similar funding drives in 2009 and 2012. “Open solicitations ensure that ARPA-E can support transformational projects outside the scope of existing ARPA-E focused programmes,” said the DoE in a press release.

The DOE says that projects selected under OPEN 2015 will pursue “novel approache” to energy innovation across the full spectrum of energy applications.

ARPA-E also says that the funding covers electricity generation, transmission, storage and distribution, energy efficiency, and transportation, including the production and distribution of fuels and electrification.

Technical targets

“Because of the enormous breadth of energy technologies solicited under an OPEN FOA, it is impossible to provide the well-defined technical targets contained in an ARPA-E FOA for a focused technology program,” says the site.

“Rather, ARPA-E asks applicants to address the potential impact of the proposed technology on the agency’s mission areas: reducing imported energy, reducing energy-related emissions and improving energy efficiency.”

This anything-goes approach sets OPEN apart from ARPA-E’s focused programmes, such as ADEPT (for Agile Delivery of Electrical Power Technology) or GENI (Green Electricity Network Integration), where the agency selects projects aimed at achieving specific goals.

“In an OPEN FOA, the burden of demonstrating potential impact lies solely upon the applicant, who must make the strongest possible case for why the proposed technology will matter,” says ARPA-E.

Dr Cheryl Martin, deputy director for commercialisation at ARPA-E, says the aim of the funding is to help accelerate the learning curve associated with new energy technology concepts, to help bring down their cost.

The ‘transformative’ part of the OPEN solicitation refers to approaches that could alter the constraints of current technologies and thus bring about a step-change in their development, she says.

OPEN solicitation

The OPEN budget is handed out in the form of three-year grants, worth around $3m on average. Developers sign cooperative agreements whereby ARPA-E provides assistance and reviews progress on a regular basis.

Unlike standard grants, ARPA-E reserves the right to pull the plug on projects that it believes are not going to achieve a satisfactory outcome. Martin says the agency has “stopped a couple of dozen projects because the science wasn’t working.”

Provided the project fits into one of the agency’s mission areas, however, anyone can apply for funding. The only conditions are that the project cannot be targeted at an area where ARPA-E already has a focused solicitation programme, and the work has to be carried out in the US.

Previous recipients have included teams working on carbon capture, fuel cells, grid hardware and software, tidal power and even a flow battery design that uses quinone, a molecule found in rhubarb.

The OPEN 2015 funding announcement has been well received by representatives of various renewable energy sectors in the US.

Satisfied developers

Scott Van Pelt, director of engineering at the New York-based distributed energy project developer Urban Green Energy, said his company had benefited from DoE funding in the past to develop wind turbines, and would likely be applying for funds under the OPEN 2015 scheme.

Urban Green Energy is hoping to use the cash to help develop systems that can improve the way wind and solar energy is used to power micro-grids. “The disruptive technologies aspect is interesting,” Van Pelt says.

“It negates conventional oil and gas and is indirectly saying ‘renewable technologies’. The distributed technology clause means it could favour behind-the-meter technologies, or those that are disruptive to the grid.”

Tidal technologies: what role do they play?

Bill Staby, chairman of the Ocean Renewable Energy Coalition, also believes OPEN 2015 could be a boost for research and development.

“It's very good news that the DoE ARPA-E programme specifically mentioned wave and tidal technologies in its recent solicitation,” he says.

“It indicates an institutional awareness that marine renewable technologies—wave, tidal, ocean current and run-of-river—can play an important role in our nation's energy future.”

In particular, he says, the nature of the funding package means it could probably support projects needing of basic research to progress beyond a technology readiness level of around 3, which might include proof-of-concept designs.

“Since ARPA-E is generally interested in funding projects that offer ‘game changing’ improvements in efficiency, cost, speed, etc, I would surmise that funding would be focused in earlier-stage technologies,” he says.

Companies or teams interested in applying for OPEN 2015 funding have to first register for a control number on the ARPA-E internet portal. They then submit an application with a brief concept paper. The first round of deadlines, for expressions of interest, is in February 2015.

Progress but at a rate to really make a splash?

Past recipients of former funding programmes (OPEN 2012) include a group of Brown University researchers led by Shreyas Mandre, assistant professor of engineering, which is developing a hydrofoil — a water wing — as a means to harvest tidal energy. And unlike other tidal energy technologies, the wing is a shallow water specialist.

With support from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the group has designed a small prototype has been testing in the lab to prove the concept. A year ago, they presented their preliminary results at the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit in Washington, D.C., and at The Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change, organized by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

“We were very encouraged by the response we received,” Mandre said. “We’re looking forward to getting to work on the next phase of the project.”

The group’s work grew partly out of a study commissioned by the Department of Energy to identify the best locations for harvesting tidal energy. The study found that many ideal locations are in shallow bays and inlets, often 10 meters in depth or less.

“When [tidewater] is forced through a narrow, shallow channel it speeds up, and therefore focuses the energy,” Mandre said. “It’s this focusing we want to take advantage of.”

The hydrofoil concept itself isn’t entirely new, Mandre says. But his team’s design adds a crucial new wrinkle — a “secret sauce,” as he puts it.

That sauce is a computer algorithm that monitors and controls the fine motion of the wing for maximum efficiency.

Brown University's tidal power conversion devices are claimed to continuously customise themselves by using an onboard computer and control software to respond to real-time measurements, which will increase tidal power conversion efficiency. The technology is said to allow for inexpensive installation and software upgrades and optimided layout of tidal power generators to maximize power generation and mitigate environmental impacts.

“It tries a certain stroke and measures the power output. Then it tries a neighboring stroke and measures the power from that. If the new stroke works better, it moves to that stroke,” Mandre said. “The tidal currents are constantly changing, so this lets us search constantly to find the best movement.”

Ultimately, the group hopes the device can play a role in harvesting the estimated 440 terawatt-hours per year of tidal power there for the taking in the United States. One terawatt-hour per year of electricity is enough to power 85,000 homes, so tidal power could make a substantial contribution to the U.S. power supply, says Brown University.

However, the university and its researchers do not appear to have published anything since March 2014 on the device's progress.

Next generation of offshore power to come from Gulf of Mexico?

In recent weeks the University of Houston has announced that it will lead a national research centre for subsea engineering and other offshore energy development issues, including research and technology to improve the sustainable and safe development of energy resources in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Subsea Systems Institute, announced by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, will be funded by the RESTORE Act (Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States), resulting from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Outgoing Texas Governor Rick Perry said that $4m in funds given to Texas by BP after the 2010 oil spill will be distributed to fund the centre launched by UH, as well as a second centre to be led by Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Total funding will depend on civil penalties levied in court.

The Houston-area Congressional delegation offered strong bipartisan support for selecting UH as the lead institution for the centre focused on offshore energy.

Ramanan Krishnamoorti, chief energy officer at UH, said the University’s location in the heart of the energy industry makes it a logical place for the Institute, which was formed in response both to the catastrophic Gulf oil spill and to the continuing push by energy companies to move into deeper waters.

A centre focused on prevention is the right thing to do,” Krishnamoorti said. “A centre in Houston is the right place to do it, and UH, Rice and NASA is the right team.”

In addition to its technical work, the centre will work on issues relating to training future subsea engineers to work at depths and temperatures previously unexplored.

“As the home of the nation’s only subsea engineering program, the University of Houston is uniquely positioned to lead not just the United States but the world in developing educational programs to ensure future leaders are able to safely and efficiently discover and develop future sources of energy in the Gulf of Mexico and other deepwater regions,” said Paula Myrick Short, vice president for academic affairs and provost at UH.

With a new outlook on offshore energy solutions other previously proposed projects such as the Tiburón Agua y Electricidad project in Mexico, could resurface for consideration and testing as they aim to provide major megawatts and in the case of this particular project, fresh water, to large parts of North Western Mexico and the Southwest US.

But testing and the necessary government funding will only tell which technologies and devlopment plans pack enough of a punch to garner sizeable private follow-on funding.

Mandre's group in 2014 had arranged a partnership with a testing facility near Little Bay in New Hampshire. They’re now seeking federal funding and industry partnerships to build their new prototype and push the project forward.

“For a project like this to succeed, people with many different skills have to come together and cooperate,” Mandre said. “Attracting such a talent is our goal.”