Ask a remote-operated-vehicle (ROV) aficionado what industries these handy little tools have had the most impact on, and the answers will be varied and interesting. Some will immediately name fisheries and aquaculture, where ROVs let even small operators put mobile, flexible, sensor-enhanced eyes on even their most remote underwater operations. Others would favor the transportation industry, where ROVs make major contributions to port security and vessel hull inspections. Relatively few people, however, unless they had industry knowledge backing them up, would name one of the industries where ROVs have had a major and still growing impact: energy production.
To be sure, the energy market is an enormous and enormously varied set of operations, and it is true that ROVs play a small or nonexistent role in many of the industry’s subfields. Nobody expects ROVs to be a major player in coal mines, for example (though they are handy in investigating flooded sections of mine, a very hazardous condition where nobody wants to risk a human diver…)
There are three basic areas in which ROVs play a major role: installation and investigation of offshore windfarms. Installation and investigation of the hydraulic systems of nuclear plants, and inspections of dams – many types of dams, of course, but most relevant here are the major construction achievements that produce local electrical generating capacity, i.e. hydropower.
You may notice something rather fundamental about these three parts of the energy industry: they are all carbon-neutral or low-carbon energy production systems, and thus are important tools in reducing global warming.
Hydropower is among the oldest approaches to renewable energy, and is far older than its relatively recent adaptation to produce electricity. Preindustrial civilizations have used the power of running water to pump water uphill, to irrigate crops, and to turn machinery. In modern times, giant hydroprojects like the Hoover Dam produce thousands of megawatts of electrical power, enough to serve millions of households, at a relatively reasonable environmental cost. Unfortunately, while the Earth has plenty of water and plenty of gravity, the requirements of hydropower for particular configurations of these resources means that the generating capacity of the natural world is more or less known, and fixed – and the “good spots” are already taken. Hydropower produces more than 1,000 Gigawatts (that’s a thousand megawatts) – about a sixth of the world’s total generating capability. Because hydropower generally requires building large dams that hold enormous quantities of water – usually conveniently located just upstream of enormous population centers – the safety monitoring and maintenance of the dam system is of the utmost priority. ROVs, of course, bring the costs of maintenance and inspection down drastically, further increasing the economic sensibility of hydropower as one of the major components of the global energy economy.
In the eyes of many, nuclear power could not be more diametrically opposed to hydropower. But in fact, depending on your point of view, a number of fundamental similarities are clear. First, although neither hydropower or nuclear power are free of environmental costs, those costs tend to be fixed cost that arise from having the industry exist at all, not costs that double every time the installed generating base doubles. Second, both nuclear and hydropower are baseline generation systems, meaning that they are always available. Third, both forms of generation tend to have catastrophic, but extremely rare, failure cases. If Hoover Dam bursts, an entire downstream city will die. If a Soviet-era nuclear plant goes critical, half of Eastern Europe could be irradiated. This combination of low expenses, high reliability, and rare disaster cases encourage us to think of these forms of power as being *perfectly* reliable, when in fact they are anything but. How to push those systems towards increased stability? Again, with more frequent and more capable monitoring.
If hydropower is the revered ancestor, still trusted but unable to keep up with the demands of his hungry children, and nuclear power is the disliked but economically essential rich cousin whose fortune keeps the family from starvation, then surely offshore windpower is the angsty, emotionally involved younger sibling – a source of infinite potential and hope for the future that is, unfortunately, wrapped in often problematic presentation right now. Windpower has an enormously high undeveloped potential for power generation, at an environmental cost that is minimal if not negligible. (Just the surface layers of the atmosphere could generate 20 times the current TOTAL human energy usage.) Unfortunately, as with hydropower, the easy spots – that is, the places where a huge turbine farm isn’t out of place - are being used for other projects. And that means that wind power has to move offshore, where the real estate tends to be heavily discounted on account of being a thousand feet beneath the ocean. And although it’s possible for us to build infrastructure in the ocean on this scale, it’s not cheap and it’s not easy – and again enter ROVs, keeping costs down, keeping human divers out of harm’s way, and providing more information for project engineers about safety and performance.
It would be an exaggeration to say that without ROVs, we can’t get to a lower-carbon, warming-mitigated world economy. But it wouldn’t be an exaggeration at all to say that ROVs are making major contribution to the energy economy’s attempt to get us over the carbon-footprint hill and into the low-carbon, high-energy promised land.