NPR Story
3:14 pm
Tue April 1, 2014

China Bets On Harnessing The Ocean For Clean Energy

China is chasing Europe’s lead and wants to capture the ocean’s waves and tides for clean and renewable energy.

The country is investing large amounts of money and entering into ventures with Lockheed Martin and partnering with the Netherlands to develop various tidal power projects.

China has 11,000 miles of coastline and, if it becomes affordable, harnessing the sea could be the key to reducing pollution and advancing the renewable energy sector in Asia and elsewhere.

The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Bellini joins Here & Now’s Robin Young with details.


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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW.

China's rapid industrialization and its dependence on coal have created heavy smog and climate change-producing emissions, so much so that the country's premier, Li Keqiang, declared war on pollution in a major speech last month. Part of the battle: speeding up development of solar and wind energy and spending a lot of money tapping into ocean power.

And that's picked the interest of Jason Bellini of the Wall Street Journal. Jason, the EU and South Korea have been harnessing the sea for years. So what's China trying to do here?

JASON BELLINI: What's China trying to do here? Well, you really hit the nail in the head with the pollution factor here, because really, coal is still the cheapest way to produce electricity for them, and they have plenty of it. But China is emerging as an important testing ground for some of these new ocean technologies for producing energy. And if some of these experiments work out, they could produce electricity more cheaply than offshore wind farms, which would be a really big deal.

YOUNG: Yeah. And so what are some of the things they're trying to do? Because there are different ways you can try to get power from the ocean.

BELLINI: Yes, there are. There are three main ways that they go about doing this, and China's trying all three. One is the underwater, tide-driven turbine farm. That's where you've got these farms of seabed turbines in areas where you've got strong tidal currents, and they use those to generate electricity. And when the change - when there's a change in direction, the turbines swivel. Another way is ocean thermal energy conversion. This one's interesting. This is a new one for me.

You - in this case, you use warm surface water to heat ammonia, which is a low boiling point, and that makes steam that drives a turbine. And in a third way, and this is pretty amazing, only in China: dynamic tidal power wall. This is a 20-mile wall across the shallow sea area, with hundreds of little underwater openings, and the way it generates power is from the ebb and the flow of tides.

So, feasibility studies are underway right now in China, but we wouldn't see construction before 2024. But it would be the new Great Wall of China, 20 miles through the ocean.

YOUNG: Wild. Well, first of all, quick question: What's the downside, here? Because yesterday, we talked about how climate change was thawing the Arctic, and thereby opening up new traffic lanes for searching for things like oil deposits - which, of course, many of our listeners saw the irony there, that, you know, climate change would cause the Arctic to thaw, but people would be looking for oil, which, of course, causes more climate change. And here...

BELLINI: Yeah. Looks like it's getting worse.

YOUNG: Right. Here, you know, what's the downside? Won't turbines, for instance, warm the already warming waters? I mean, what's the - what is the thinking about the downside to this harnessing the ocean?

BELLINI: Well, really, the biggest downside of it all is that it's so speculative, and it hasn't been brought to scale. And so it's hard enough that any of this is really going to work, and whether it will be affordable long term. But China's got the money to give this stuff a try. You know, one of the projects they've got under study right now, again, is that tidal power wall. And one of the disadvantages is that it could hurt the wildlife.

You know, you're really - you know, the 20-mile wall, you can really tamper with things. They're trying to, you know, mitigate that by creating blades that would allow fish and eels and other sea life to go through. But there could be unintended consequences when you're building something so large through nature. But the upside of that is that if it works, it could produce as much electricity as 2 1/2 large nuclear reactors. Expensive, but that would be pretty exciting.

YOUNG: Well, and one would think that that would ripple through the global economy.

BELLINI: Well, absolutely. And, you know, as you mentioned in the beginning of our conversation, they're not the only ones doing it. Europe's been pretty aggressive in this area. You've got, well, a project in Europe that, you know, Siemens is saying that tidal currents alone could someday power 250 million households worldwide. So there's enormous potential that's being seen right now - economic opportunity, too.

YOUNG: Jason Bellini, The Wall Street Journal. Of course, there's also downsides that we'll keep an eye on, as well. Jason, thanks so much.

BELLINI: Thank you.

YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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