When Bill Gates talks, people listen. So, when Gates gave the nod to a Belgian plan for an artificial island on Twitter last week, we took it as cause for optimism that prominent figures are alert to the need for audacious-sounding breakthrough innovation.
This might not be as crazy as it sounds…Belgium plans artificial floating island to store energy: b-gat.es/12SkaiD via @techreview — Bill Gates (@BillGates) February 21, 2013
The manmade island “atolls,” featured in the MIT Technology Review, would be built to store wind energy generated in offshore locations, where intermittence hinders efficient matching of electricity generation to power consumption. On land, so-called “pumped-storage hydroelectricity” is used to store more energy, in preparation for use by a grid, than any other method. The process simply involves pumping water to artificially higher altitudes, where the potential energy in the water can later be dispatched at times of peak demand. The ability to choose when water is released back to sea level would make a wind farm function more like a coal or natural gas power plant, where combustible material is used when needed. With prices of generating solar and wind power decreasing, interest in innovative methods of energy storage has surged.
At sea, storage via pumped hydro entails a separate set of engineering challenges, with additional capital costs. However, there are numerous advantages to placing turbines offshore – the generating potential is higher, and you don’t have to lay cable across overlapping government jurisdictions, and hundreds of privately-owned properties.
The planned facility would be located just a few kilometers off the coast of Belgium, within the 12-nautical-mile territorial waters boundary. The engineering methods used to construct the atoll, however, could be applied atop seamounts in international waters, meaning they could be useful for a seastead community seeking greater legal autonomy. Although remoteness increases the difficulty of transmitting electricity to land, a wind farm with cost-effective pumped hydro storage could serve as the basis for a number of high-energy input business models, such as aluminum recycling or biofuel production.
While immobile atoll isles may not be the end-all-be-all in terms of seasteading’s vision of floating, modular cities, the fact that proposals like this are working their way into the mainstream conversation bodes well for future technological progress, and our general mission. We eagerly await all future developments in this field, and hope to contribute to the realization of audacious, yet economically-viable offshore energy.