Potential Environmental Impacts of Open-Cycle Thermal Energy Conversion

Journal Article

Title: Potential Environmental Impacts of Open-Cycle Thermal Energy Conversion
Publication Date:
January 01, 1986
Journal: Environmental Impact Assessment Review
Volume: 1986
Issue: 6
Pages: 77-93
Publisher: Elsevier
Technology Type:

Document Access

Website: External Link
Attachment: Access File
(397 KB)


Quinby-Hunt, M.; Wilde, P.; Dengler, A. (1986). Potential Environmental Impacts of Open-Cycle Thermal Energy Conversion. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 1986(6), 77-93.

Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) is a power-generating system that uses the temperature difference between warm surface water in the tropical ocean and the cooler water at depth to run a Rankine-cycle heat engine. For the temperature difference typically available in the upper 1000 meters in tropical and subtropical waters, 20-25ºC, energy extraction efficiencies are low, two to four percent (Dugger et al. 1981), compared to conventional steam generation plants. Because of the low efficiencies involved, large flows of ocean water (the fuel in an OTEC system) are required: about 10 m3 /sec per megawatt (DOE 1979a). Two OTEC operating cycles are currently under development in the United States at Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne, Illinois and at the Solar Energy Research Institute at Golden, Colorado: closed- and open-cycle. Because the technology is highly experimental, most of the technical details have not yet appeared in the literature. In closed-cycle systems a low-boiling point working fluid (ammonia or Freon) is evaporated by warm surface waters. The vapor is expanded to drive a turbine. The expanded vapor is then condensed by cooler deep ocean water and returned to the warm side. In open-cycle operations warm surface water is used as the working fluid. Surface sea water is introduced into a evaporator under partial vacuum separating the sea water into steam and brine. The steam, after passing through a turbine, is condensed using cold ocean water.


Several configurations for OTEC plants have been considered to date: free-floating plants (grazing and moored), bottom-resting facilities (at various distances from shore), and shore-based plants. The floating and far-offshore configurations currently are not being actively pursued in the US Program due to increased technical and safety risks associated with them (Lewis 1983). Also, use of open-cycle technology for fresh water generation and mariculture requires land or proximity to land. Accordingly, this paper focuses on shore-based configurations identifying various options for operations and the discharges associated with each of them.


Numerous documents have addressed the environmental effects of closed-cycle OTEC (DOE, 1979a,b, 1980, 1981). Although the earliest OTEC experiments were on open-cycle systems (Claudi:, 1930), the environmental effects of open-cycle OTEC have not yet been thoroughly investigated. This document identifies the potential impacts of open-cycle: OTEC on terrestrial, atmospheric, and marine environments suggesting the environmental studies which would elucidate the importance of potential impacts to the environment.

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