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Alternative Energy

New Year, new innovations: energy and climate science


National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Over the last year, I have had the privilege of participating in a marine science policy fellowship in Washington, D.C. Besides learning how policy is made, one perk has been to visit marine science and conservation conferences, see amazing aquariums, go whale watching, and tour state-of-the-art marine science research institutions.

As one would think, most of these locations were on a coastline, whether marine or freshwater. However, last month (or last year, rather), I went to the mountains to explore the nexus of marine, atmospheric, and renewable energy sciences at two locations: the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offices in Boulder, Colorado.

National Renewable Energy Laboratory

NREL is one of our nation’s answers to the call for renewable energy research. In terms of renewable electricity, they focus on four areas: Solar, Wind, Water, and Geothermal. Research at NREL also explores bioenergy, energy-efficiency, chemistry & nanoscience, and hydrogen fuel cells.

Although I have an overarching interest in renewable energies (because I want my grandchildren to actually be able to enjoy living on Earth some day), given my marine background, I was particularly interested in learning about NREL’s research with water power. Their program draws from 35 years of experience in developing innovative water power technologies.

Water power research at NREL falls into 2 categories: Marine & hydrokinetic, and Hydropower. Marine & hydrokinetic technologies extract power from moving water (waves, tidal flow, or ocean and river currents), while Hydropower technologies use energy of water moving from a higher to a lower elevation, such as with a river dam.

The Lilypad Wave Energy Converter (WEC). Credit: Energy Island.

The Lilypad Wave Energy Converter (WEC). Credit: Energy Island.

Marine and hydrokinetic energy (sometimes called ocean energy) is a growing industry in the United States. NREL researches have developed user-friendly, open-source modeling to analyze the performance and dynamic response of wave- and current-energy devices. The ocean-energy team supports industry to design innovative MHK technologies and facilitates consensus on international standards to certify these technologies.

One such “ocean energy” project is the Lilypad Wave Energy Converter, or WEC. It consists of a floating flexible membrane which follows the motions of the sea surface, which is connected by ties to another membrane underwater. The motion of the waves causes surface membrane to pull on the ties, and the physical force can be converted into electricity. Not only would the Lilypad be able to passively generate renewable energy, but it can also act as a breakwater. It would reduce the force and height of waves, which could be used to protect marine installations, form temporary harbors, and perhaps play an important role in erosion control. Additionally, because of its flexibility, it poses little danger to boats trying to navigate coastlines.

Aside from the water power research at NREL, other research tools, such as for wind power, can be adapted for marine energy research as well. I visited the Insight Center Collaboration room, where I got to put on glasses and step inside a 3D, virtual field of wind turbines and the turbulence the machines cause in the air currents. Our guide explained how this technology can also be used to explore underwater currents as well, including turbulence caused by marine installations. Imagine being able to step inside the currents generated beneath the ocean surface and explore how they might affect marine habitats and the ecosystem. The experience showed me just how cross-cutting new technologies can be when it comes to environmental science and energy research.

Our guide walks us through virtual wind turbine turbulence inside the Insight Center Collaboration room at NREL.

Our guide walks us through virtual wind turbine turbulence inside the Insight Center Collaboration room at NREL. Not seen: me wearing awesome glasses.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The next stop on my tour was the NOAA labs in Boulder. NOAA is a federal agency whose mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth’s environment, and conserve and manage coastal and marine resources to meet our nation’s economic, social and environmental needs. Some of their more widely-known divisions include the National Weather Service, Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, and the National Marine Fisheries Service

NOAA is an organization familiar to me – my fellowship is sponsored through them. But I had never been to the Boulder office, which supports more than 1,000 researchers, engineers, forecasters, and others at the David Skaggs Research Center. The Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) is their largest laboratory, and researchers here study the components and dynamics of the physical Earth and how these work together to produce weather and climate and influence ecosystems. Their topics include ozone, carbon cycle science, the weather-climate connection, and climate & water systems.

Again, I was particularly interested in the water and climate science they do at NOAA. Water is essential to life on Earth. It not only covers 75% of our planet, but it also ties together major parts of the climate system – air, clouds, ocean, lakes, vegetation, snowpack, and glaciers. Water influences climate variability and change, and its availability is critical for meeting societal and ecological demands. However, the intensity of the effect of water on climate is not accurately known, because the current water vapor-cloud-climate feedbacks are incompletely understood.

Researchers at ESRL study the nexus between atmospheric forcings and water to better understand our climate system, such as how they affect increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) or changes in solar radiation. They aim to do this through improving models to give accurate regional-scale predictions and collecting more wide-spread observations – more data is never a bad thing.

Science On a Sphere room at NOAA, Boulder.

Science On a Sphere room at NOAA, Boulder.

A highlight of my visit to NOAA was the Science On a Sphere room. Science On a Sphere (SOS) is an animated globe that can show dynamic, animated images of the oceans, atmosphere, and land of a planet. When you add narration and graphics, SOS can demonstrate complex environmental processes in an intuitive and entertaining way. It was developed at NOAA Boulder as an educational tool to help illustrate Earth System science to all different audiences. Since then, the exhibit has spread to hundreds of locations around the globe, in aquariums, museums, and research centers.

Our guide and narrator treated us to a custom presentation where we explored atmospheric currents and jet streams, airplane flight patterns across the globe, shipping channel tracking, and of course ocean currents. We were shown several El Niño/La Niña episodes over the last century; it was a treat seeing on the globe how the ocean heat budget interfaces with the atmosphere and climate during these times. I particularly found fascinating the breakdown of the tidal waves generated by the 2011 Japan earthquake. Being able to see the wave tracks on the globe, their intensity corresponding to color, was a powerful visualization. I can’t wait to see how this technology is implemented in the future.

Science On a Sphere. Left: El Nino currents of 2016. Right: Tidal wave tracks over the Pacific Ocean after the 2011 Japan earthquake. 1-hour increment lines show how long it took the waves to reach far-off coasts and islands.

Science On a Sphere. Left: El Niño/La Niña currents of 2016. Right: Tidal wave tracks over the Pacific Ocean after the 2011 Japan earthquake. 1-hour increment lines show how long it took the waves to reach far-off coasts and islands.

As NOAA and NREL are federal research institutions, a large goal is to help decision makers in water management, energy, marine resources, agriculture, and disaster management make informed choices. Improved understanding of the influence of water on climate variability and sustainable energy benefit decision makers dealing with climate-sensitive issues. I enjoyed my time at these institutions, and gained a new appreciation for the importance of marine, energy, and water system research. I don’t know what the new year will bring, but I can only hope it will bring new (and desperately needed) scientific understanding to those who need it most.

Happy New Year!


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