Ocean energy research moves closer in Puerto Rico


Puerto Rico has the ambition to become a leader in ocean energy with the PROTech project, for which RFPs are being sought.

The Puerto Rico Ocean Technology Complex (PROTech) initiative is an ambitious government-led plan to establish a major technology park on the island territory while also spearheading its economic regrowth.

The main drivers of the proposal are the development of the use of deep seawater in ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) and air conditioning systems. Typically, such seawater comes from depths greater than 200m and has a temperature of 10-12o C.

However, the byproducts of those systems offer additional opportunities, such as production of bottled water, cosmetics, aquaculture, leisure medical treatments and food components. Moreover, the water can be used in agriculture and industry among other fields.

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OTEC facilities must be located within several kilometres of coastal zones due to cabling and other constraints such as near-shore circulation, which influences the thermal structure of the water column. Puerto Rico’s east-southeast coast was found to meet the key requirements, having a more than 20o C differential from deep water to surface water and a favourable seafloor environment for anchoring physical systems.

The proposal is that the complex should become a world leader in deep ocean water use and especially for energy. The OTEC facility is planned to be the first large-scale plant in the world, with a capacity between 5-10MW and to position Puerto Rico as a leader in the technology.

Currently, just two OTEC facilities are in operation, a 100kW plant by Makai Ocean Engineering at Kailua-Kona, Hawaii and a 50kW demonstration by the Okinawa Deep Seawater Research Institute off Jumejima Island in Okinawa Prefecture, Japan.

Sea water cooling

The sea water air conditioning system is expected initially to meet the cooling demand of the principal tenants of the complex. With metering it will provide revenue to the generator. However, it is proposed to introduce a policy that such systems be installed in all new constructions.

The PROTech initiative was stimulated by the destruction caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017, which “changed the game rules relating to energy generation and new technologies”, according to the project roadmap.

“Since 2017, we have worked with dedication and determination in the preparation of the PROtech master plan. This is the starting point to invest in the efforts of industries related to the oceans and to create the necessary technologies for the transition from conventional energies and fuels to more responsible and sustainable alternatives,” says Manuel A. Laboy Rivera, secretary of the Department of Economic Development and Commerce.

“This project will be a great opportunity for the development of multiple economic and research sectors.”

Three companies have been shortlisted for the project. These are the US engineering and architect consortium WSP USA Building and Marvel Marchand, the US industrial manufacturer Agru América, and Puerto Rico-based infrastructure developer Energy Center Cajuhu.

The estimated cost of the development is upwards of $120 million, of which about half is required for the OTEC facility.