Starting tomorrow, the world’s first power plant generating power from salt water will be opened at Tofte in Norway.
Back in May, I did a little roundup of various ways to get power from water. One of the more experimental technologies I mentioned was salt power – or osmotic power, which is the more precise (and slightly more complicated sounding) name for it.
Europe’s largest renewable energy company, Statkraft, has now developed this technology far enough to open their first prototype power plant, with their sights set on building a commercially viable plant within a few year’s time (Statkraft’s press release).
How osmotic power/salt power works
I simplified things in the first paragraph to avoid scaring readers away. There’s a bit more to it than just salt water. Not much, though – the principle isn’t very complicated:
- Water is pumped into a container, salty ocean water on one side and fresh water on the other side of a membrane.
- The natural process osmosis pulls the freshwater through the membrane. Since the membrane only allows water to flow in this one direction, pressure builds on the salt water side.
- The built-up pressure is used to power a turbine, thereby generating power.
This kind of power plant could be built anywhere fresh water flows into salt water, typically where a river flows into an ocean. Statkraft has calculated that the worldwide potential of osmotic power is somewhere between 1600 and 1700 TWh, roughly equivalent to 50 percent of the EU’s total production. Not too shabby.
What are the advantages of osmotic power?
So, you might ask, why bother developing this technology? Why develop an entirely new technology, instead of improving existing renewable technologies like, say solar power? Here are the reasons I can think of off the top of my head:
- No huge installations needed
Osmotic power plants can be built in the basements of existing buildings.
- Virtually no unwanted side effects
The power generation basically piggybacks on a natural process (ie. the mixing of fresh water and salt water) that would’ve occurred anyway. No birds or fish being killed by turbine blades, no huge dams flooding valleys and so on.
- Continuous power generation
This is a big one. One of the more difficult aspects of moving to renewable energy is the intermittency of the power generation many of them provide. Solar power needs the sun to shine and wind power needs the wind to blow. Osmotic power just needs the river to not dry out.
- More choice
No single technology will be a good fit for every situation and context. Solar power is good for deserts, wind power is good for windy areas (well, duh) and osmotic power is good for coastal areas with rivers running into the ocean. The greater the number of options available, the better.
I tried to come up with some disadvantages to osmotic powers, but couldn’t really think of any. Can you think of any? Or are there advantages I’ve missed? Set me straight in the comments :-)energy generation, energy production, marine power, osmotic power, renewable ene, salt power, water power