How Deep Is Your Ocean Love?
Three NREL Researchers Share Stories About Playing, Nearly Capsizing, and Searching for Meaning in the Ocean
To celebrate National Ocean Month, we spoke to three water power researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) whose lives and work revolve around the 70% of our planet that is covered in ocean.
"It’s pretty humbling to see how much power is out there."
Hometown: Hudson, Ohio
Will Wiley may have grown up in landlocked Ohio, but that did not stop him from falling in love with all things water. He swam, sailed, windsurfed, and kiteboarded in pools and lakes, including one of the country’s largest, Lake Erie. Then, as an undergraduate student at the Webb Institute, which focuses exclusively on engineering seaworthy vessels, Wiley found a larger, saltier playground: the Long Island Sound.
Although Wiley often associates water with fun, he also respects its feral energy. “It’s pretty humbling to see how much power is out there,” Wiley said.
During college, Wiley took an internship in the engine room of a cargo ship—a steel vessel large enough to carry the weight of the Statue of Liberty in shipping containers. But even all that heft is still a plaything to the ocean. Powerful waves tossed the ship around like a dog trying to dislodge a flea. The vessel careened 30 degrees in each direction.
“It’s pretty crazy to see this massive structure—an enormous, steel vessel—moving around so much,” Wiley said. “That really demonstrates how much power is out there.”
Now, as a marine energy and offshore wind researcher at the U.S. Department of Energy's NREL, Wiley is helping to harness some of that immense ocean power. Marine energy—or power generated from ocean waves, currents, and tides or river currents—could help decarbonize the U.S. power grid and offshore industries, like seafood farming and even international shipping. That cargo ship, for example, could benefit from the powerful beast tossing it around.
Of course, as Wiley knows from firsthand experience, the ocean does not always embrace humanmade technologies. So, to help marine energy developers predict whether their devices will survive at sea, Wiley develops models that can simulate the ocean’s power. As developers hone their designs, they are aiming to achieve a precarious balance: enough bulk to protect their technologies from the ocean’s brute force but not so much that their device becomes too costly to achieve commercial success.
“If you aren’t very sure what the forces are going to be, you have to design it extra-strong to cover your uncertainty,” Wiley said. But if developers know what their device might face out in the brine, they can build it to be just strong enough to survive.
When Wiley joined NREL, he moved to yet another landlocked state, Colorado. He still swims in Boulder Creek (“There’s definitely some power to that water, too,” Wiley said), but he does not mind giving up the ocean if he can help protect it, using its own inherent power.
“The impacts of climate change are definitely going to be detrimental to the ocean environment,” Wiley said. “Using what’s already there in the ocean can help protect it.”
“The ocean has meant my home and my upbringing.”
Hometown: Natick, Massachusetts
Unlike Wiley, Arielle Cardinal grew up within a half-hour drive of the coastline, in Natick, Massachusetts. For her and her family, the ocean meant—and still means—celebration.
“Every holiday, anniversary, and some weddings, our family always migrated toward the ocean,” said Cardinal, who now lives in Colorado but still treks out to Oregon’s coast to romp around those shores with Frisbee discs and kids in tow. “The ocean has meant my home and my upbringing,” she said.
Today, the ocean also means work, but in the best possible way. “I've been pretty lucky to stumble across a job that is so tied to my passion and love for the ocean,” Cardinal said. “That was totally random.”
As a project manager for NREL’s water power program, Cardinal not only works to protect the ocean she loves—helping to develop international standards for future marine energy technologies, for example—but she is also imparting her passion to younger generations.
Cardinal manages the Marine Energy Collegiate Competition, which brings together undergraduate and graduate students from across the country (and around the world) and is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO). The student teams work to design creative solutions to help the budding marine energy industry achieve commercial success. These technologies, Cardinal said, could decarbonize some ocean-based industries, like marine research, or even coastal communities, many of which still depend on diesel to power their homes.
And, with a new web-based learning platform called Renewable Energy Discovery Island (or REDi Island, for short), anyone, anywhere—even in landlocked Colorado—can visit an ocean-powered world. REDi Island, which WPTO also funds, portrays a hypothetical 100% renewable-energy-powered island world. Cardinal shepherded this world from idea to app. And, although such an island does not exist, it could eventually. Cardinal is optimistic that researchers will build the technologies we need to protect the ocean and our planet.
“I came into NREL with anxiety about what’s going to happen to the world,” Cardinal said. But after watching her NREL colleagues and younger generations pour so much energy into climate solutions, she is more hopeful about the future.
“I’m still anxious,” she said, “but a little less anxious.”
“There’s a feeling of limitless possibilities out there.”
Hometown: Homer, Alaska
Growing up in Homer, Alaska, Levi Kilcher lived in and on the water. His dad brought home five-gallon buckets full of delicacies, like shrimp and crab (“I would eat enough until I was just completely stuffed and sick,” Kilcher said). He hauled in his first king salmon at the age of 8. As a teenager, Kilcher worked as a deckhand for his dad, transporting diesel, food, and trash to and from communities throughout Cook Inlet and surrounding waters and delivering supplies to build ritzy lodges or even small family homes.
“I’m extremely grateful to have grown up in one of the most beautiful places in the world. The view out my bedroom window was green pastures cascading down toward Kachemak Bay, and across the bay, dark green forests sat amidst blue glaciers and snowcapped peaks.”
But when Kilcher was about 8 years old, a stain seeped into that idyllic water world. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the state and oil companies enlisted fishermen and other boatmen, like Kilcher’s dad, to help with the cleanup. “Nearly every boat in the harbor was involved in the effort in one way or another.” Kilcher remembers handing out thick white absorbent pads that were used to sop up the oil from the beaches. His stepmom led a bird rescue center that cleaned the black ooze off birds and tried to nurse them back to life.
“I was overwhelmed by the scale of the problem,” Kilcher said. “Everything we were doing seemed like such a futile effort.”
The catastrophe brought Kilcher closer to the water, delivering those absorbent pads and other supplies on his dad’s boat. When he left Homer to attend Oregon State University, Kilcher never expected his career to bring him back to his beloved ocean—let alone, Alaska. After studying engineering and physics as an undergraduate student, Kilcher earned a doctorate in physical oceanography, studying ocean turbulence.
“That was why I was originally hired,” said Kilcher, who is now a senior researcher at NREL. The laboratory needed an expert in turbulence to understand the physical environment in which turbines would be operating. That work eventually led Kilcher back home to study the largest tidal energy resource in the United States and the source of his bountiful childhood dinners.
“As time has gone on, I’ve grown to become a champion for developing tidal energy technologies and projects in Alaska because, frankly, the state has such massive resources,” Kilcher said. In his current work, Kilcher studies what it will take to get Cook Inlet’s tidal energy onto Alaska’s grid (and displace some of that diesel he used to transport as a kid). But his work extends beyond his home state; he is measuring all kinds of marine energy, including wave and tidal energy resources, across the entire country.
As a bonus, Kilcher once again gets to work out on the ocean where he enjoys the iridescent shimmering-mirror texture that ripples across the surface during the long summer evenings.
“That silvery dance is just totally mesmerizing to me,” Kilcher said. “There’s a feeling of limitless possibilities out there beyond the horizon.”