One of the first lessons we learn in school is that two-thirds of the earth’s surface is submerged in ocean water. It is one of the most memorable facts from our primary education. Many of us must have thought what a waste it was that so much of the planet was basically unusable. For the longest time, the oceans were dangerous expanses that we sought to circumnavigate for exploration and, eventually, global trade.
So much has changed since Columbus or the first cargo ships set sail. Now we cast eyes on the oceans with many forms of exploitation in mind. We are turning the oceans into a location for power plants, agriculture — and some are even envisioning a day when it will be home to waterborne cities.
Russia is already building an ocean-based nuclear power plant, and China is planning to build 20 ship-like nuclear reactors and moor them in the South China Sea. There are advantages to this concept. The ocean gives nuclear plants vast access to the tremendous amount of water they need to cool their reactors. Taking reactors to sea also circumvents the public’s resistance to having the dangers of radioactive material near their cities. What’s more, seaborne reactors are mobile and can navigate to where the power supply is most needed, or avert the occasional typhoon.
Just the mention of typhoons reminds us that the ocean is a very windy place, the zephyrs blowing hard and consistently, which is why the purveyors of wind power have taken to the oceans. In addition to the bounty of ocean winds, plummeting manufacturing and deployment costs has propelled these seafaring notions. Just this year the Dutch activated what has been billed the planet’s largest offshore wind farm with 150 turbines spinning 53 miles off the northern coast of the Netherlands. The Gemini Wind Farm is expected to generate up to 600 megawatts to supply renewable energy to 785,000 Dutch households.
The Brits have also been particularly high on offshore wind power. Michael Grubb, a professor of international energy and climate-change policy at University College London, was recently quoted in The Economist as saying: “We’re looking for North Sea wind as being to the U.K. economy for the next 50 years what oil and gas was for the last half century.”
While fishing the oceans has long supplied humans with a huge source of protein, aquatic farming is now in development, and could help avert some of the ravages of climate change. One such effort is being made 100 miles off the northwest coast of Italy by a Genova-based scuba diving company named Ocean Reef Group. It has used ropes to tether a cluster of “pods” to the ocean floor for a project cleverly named Nemo’s Garden. Inside the pods, or biospheres, they are growing beans, basil, lettuce, red cabbage and strawberries. Fresh water is supplied by evaporating seawater that condenses on the roofs of the biospheres and gradually drips into the garden. The submersion in ocean water keeps the temperature consistent and protects the plants from extreme weather conditions sometimes found on land.
Executives for the company say its early testing indicates plants are growing faster on the seabed than in traditional land-based gardens. The pod’s design has been patented and Ocean Reef Group expects to start growing a wider variety of vegetables and herbs with an eye toward eventual commercialization. If successful, the vision posed in the 1970s by oceanographer Jacques Cousteau — that humans stop approaching the oceans as hunters and gatherers, and instead become farmers of the sea — may someday come to pass, although even he probably was not thinking in terms of crop-based aquaculture.
Even more fantastical is the concept of waterborne cities being promoted by the Seasteading Institute. The organization is working on the development of floating cities, which it calls “seasteading communities,” to allow the “next generation of pioneers to peacefully test new ideas for government.” The institute — founded by libertarian activist Patri Friedman and funded in part by tech entrepreneur, venture capitalist and political activist Peter Thiel — acknowledges its Floating City Project is an audacious vision that will take decades to fully realize, but it has taken the initial steps by signing a memorandum of understanding with French Polynesia to cooperate on the creation of a sea-zone where it can begin seasteading.
If we’re willing to take a flight of fancy, we can start thinking in terms of floating, water-based cities powered by offshore wind farms or nuclear reactors, growing their own food supplies on the ocean floor and experimenting with various forms of governance.
Even Poseidon, god of the sea, probably never thought he would see the day.
Mike Consol (email@example.com) is editor of Real Assets Adviser.