May 19, 2009

The timescale of ocean engineering

A friend of mine from college, a mechanical engineer (and one of the most brilliant engineers I know), has been researching ocean wind energy systems. We’ve been discussing his ideas, and some of his thoughts on the industry are worth sharing (emphasis added):

> At the DC offshore renewable energy (electricity from waves, tides and currents) conference, I found that only a COUPLE outfits (namely OpenHydro and Pelamis) were actaully getting anywhere besides just talking and burning up grant money. They had real hardware being demonstrated and ordered by utilities. (All of it way too expensive to be competitive without subsidies, but still, they got SOMETHING.)

> Their stories had some notable similarities:

> …

> 2: Incremental scale models over at least a decade!

> **It takes at least a decade to get something mechical to Really Work in the ocean. The ocean is a motherfucker, and NO ONE is smart enough to design something that’ll just work right away (unlike software, say).**

> So the winners do a series of 6-10 scale models, a little bigger each time, each one answering, at best just one question. This always takes AT LEAST ten years. It’s this long long process of de-risking the problem.

> Takeaway: One has to LIVE this thing, at least until I’m FIFTY. I need to figure out how to put time on my side. Otherwise, I’ll lose steam and get a straight job along the way. So to do this, I need to design my whole life AROUND paratow, long term. If I try to sprint, I’m dead. Where I live, what I wear, who I marry, how I spend my free time, etc, all have to be decided in ways that are aligned with paratow.

I want to move fast, and I think we at TSI can move faster than we have been towards physical implementation, but this is a good perspective to keep in mind. I am used to software (as are many of us), and marine engineering has a fundamentally much slower design cycle.