In 1870, Jules Verne introduced the concept of ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Within a decade, American, French and Italian scientists are said to have been working on the concept but the Frenchman, physicist Jacques-Arsene d’Arsonval, is generally credited as the father of the concept for using ocean temperature differences to create power.
D’Arsonval’s student, Georges Claude, built the first OTEC power plant in 1930 in Cuba, which produced 22 kilowatts of electricity. This led to an on-shore open cycle plant, with a pipe extending out to sea. Despite initial problems, power was generated.
French research continued in earnest through the 1940s and into the 1950s. Research also began in California in the 1940s. In all cases, work was slowed or halted by cheaper alternatives to power generation.
In the 1960s, J. Hilbert Anderson and his son James Anderson designed a closed-cycle OTEC power plant, aimed to be more practical, compact, and economic. This cycle pumps warm surface water through heat exchangers to boil a working fluid into a vapor. The vapor expands to power turbines and drive generators. Cold water pumped from the deep ocean condenses the vapor back into its liquid state. The Arab Oil Embargo and the skyrocket of oil prices in the mid 1970s drove high interest to the Andersons’ and other OTEC models.
Japan and India each have done research on smaller scale OTEC power plants and both continue to pursue the technology. In 1979 and 1980, closed-cycle Mini-OTEC and OTEC-1 were built at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawai‘i Authority (NELHA) to demonstrate the concept. The U.S. Department of Energy deemed OTEC was a viable energy source following the Hawai‘i projects.
Hawai‘i Senator Spark Matsunaga spearheaded a bill that passed Congress and was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 that promoted OTEC development. Funding peaked that year, however, as cheaper oil made alternatives less attractive.
The Andersons, using personal resources, continued to advance their innovative technology. In 2000, the Andersons granted an exclusive worldwide license to The Abell Foundation to their lifetime work of OTEC research and development. The Abell Foundation established OTEC International LLC in 2001 (formerly Sea Solar Power International) to commercialize OTEC technology. Starting with the Anderson’s strong foundation, OTI updated their design to the current state of the art for the first generation of commercial OTEC facilities.