Persistently high oil prices are prompting resource-scarce Taiwan to look again at the possibilities of extracting energy from the abundant ocean that surrounds the island
Successful research could help reduce Taiwan’s reliance on imported fuel, but many of the hurdles that prompted domestic electricity utility Taipower to suspend research into ocean thermal energy conversion two decades ago remain.
Taiwan is heavily reliant on imports to satisfy its energy requirements. Less than 2 percent is supplied by domestic hydroelectricity, with the rest, mainly oil and coal, being imported.
With international crude futures heading toward US$80 (HK$624) a barrel, and benchmark Australia spot coal prices hitting all-time highs of around US$68 a tonne, Taiwan is increasingly feeling the squeeze.
To reduce mounting import bills, Taiwan’s government has set an ambitious target of doubling the proportion of installed capacity of hydroelectricity and other renewable energy to 10 percent by 2010 from currently around 5 percent, and it is exploring all the options.
Development of ocean energy – wave power, tidal power, ocean currents, ocean thermal and salinity differences – is still in its infancy.
Ocean thermal energy conversion takes advantage of the proximity of warm and cold water in the sea.
An OTEC plant draws both cold water from the depths and shallow water warmed by the sun into a system, creating a temperature differential that generates an electricity-producing cycle as it evens out.
The process can also be used to desalinate sea water.
No commercial OTEC power plants are in operation, although US-based OCEES International, the world’s leader in OTEC technologies, has said it will bring some commercial projects online by around 2011.
In theory, Taiwan has huge ocean energy potential, especially OTEC, but high generating costs and technical risks mean ocean energy will be unable to play even a supplementary role in Taiwan’s energy mix in coming years.
Taiwan’s possible reserves of OTEC, mostly in eastern coastal areas, are around 3,000 megawatts, according to an estimate by Taipower.
“That will be equivalent to the electricity produced by the three nuclear power plants currently operating in Taiwan,” said Gong Gwo-ching, director of the Institute of Marine Environmental Chemistry and Ecology, National Taiwan Ocean University.
Taipower and other domestic institutes began researching OTEC in the 1980s, but the research was shelved largely because it was uneconomical.
Taipower is now planning a project in the waters off the eastern coast near Hualien that will ride on the back of a desalination plant to be built by the Water Resources Agency.