Alternative Energy and Offshore Power: Powering America’s future

Wind TurbinesAmericans spend about $1 trillion every year buying energy. To keep that number in check – and to stop its escalation – the nation must turn to nontraditional sources of energy production.

Engineering new technologies to harness the rays of the sun, the winds of the oceans or the power of atoms has long been a passion of researchers at the College of Engineering.

“Today, the energy we produce is sufficient but if the country is to grow we need a mix of energies that are affordable, economical, sustainable and not harmful to the environment,” Distinguished Engineering Professor Bahram Nassersharif says.

On land, that means developing solar panels that are embedded in asphalt. Such technology would allow utility companies to insert solar panels directly into roadways and turn the nation’s highway system into a massive power plant. Researchers are also developing the world’s next nuclear power reactors that will be safer, smaller and modular to allow for installation in remote parts of the world.

Offshore, University researchers see the potential to harness the ocean’s wind, waves and currents. While the consequences of their research will reach around the world, engineering faculty have paid special attention to the waters off Rhode Island. They joined a worldwide team to produce the Rhode Island Special Area Management Plan that guides how we regulate coastal waters for uses such as renewable energy.

“Offshore wind here could be a first in the nation,” Distinguished Ocean Engineering Professor Stephan Grilli says. “We also have the possibility of installing technology in deeper waters than has ever been built before.”

Ocean engineering researchers have also developed linear electric generators that convert the motion of waves to electricity. They have also devised smart circuits that capture the electricity and send it to batteries in an efficient manner.

In 2007, the University created the Partnership for Energy that married engineering, oceanography, chemistry and environmental disciplines to study energy systems. Then in 2011, the University formed the Ocean Spacial Planning and Renewable Energy Center to advise governments and private companies pursing offshore energy projects.

Connecting all the dots requires coordinated research to build the nation’s “smart grid” backed by computers that can react in milliseconds to a sudden loss of power or a spike in demand. Such technology also manages electricity usage and automatically turns off lights or reduces air-conditioning during times of high demand.

“You can have the best idea and the best solution, but until you prove it is reliable and saves costs people are not going to embrace it,” Grilli says.

Stephan Grilli
Distinguished Professor, ocean engineering
Sheets Building
Narragansett Bay Campus
15 Receiving Road
Narragansett, RI 02882 USA