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The Most Overlooked Energy Source On Earth

bout a month ago, a report by clean energy watchdog Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) confirmed that the renewable energy sector has remained the most resilient to the ravages of Covid-19, with global energy transition investments in 2020 clocking in at a record $501.3 billion, good for 9% Y/Y growth. As expected, solar, wind power, and EVs commanded the lion’s share of clean energy investments, while investments in hydrogen tech and carbon capture and storage (CCS) managed to reach a combined $4.5B.

Unfortunately, one renewable energy source has continued to be conspicuous by its absence: Tidal and wave power.

But make no mistake about it: BNEF has warned that the world could be unable to reach its climate goals in the stipulated time to avoid catastrophic climate change if it continues to ignore fringe technologies such as CCS and hydrogen. You can add ocean power to that list.

IRENA has estimated the wave energy potential at around 29,500 TWh per year, meaning ocean power alone could theoretically meet the energy needs of the entire globe. 

Yet, tidal and wave power have remained woefully underrepresented in our energy mix. For instance, Europe has some of the most developed ocean power facilities for electricity generation. Yet, ocean energy accounted for a mere 0.06% of all electricity generated by the formerly 28-member bloc from renewable sources in 2019.

However, this could be the tipping point when tidal and wave power finally go mainstream and even begins to rival conventional renewables such as solar and wind.

Blue energy explosion

The EU has acknowledged that blue energy is destined to play a much bigger role in our energy mix as the world transitions to clean energy.

While still focusing chiefly on wind power, the commission’s upcoming offshore energy strategy will seek to boost other ocean energy sources, including wave and tidal, according to a draft policy document. The objective is for offshore wind to reach installed capacities of 60 gigawatts (GW) by 2030 and 1-3 GW for ocean energy by a similar date. That will pave the way for a much bigger buildout of 300 and 60 GW, for offshore wind and ocean power, respectively, by 2050.

Just how ambitious is that goal?

Well, the commission points out that aiming for 60 GW of ocean energy by 2050 will mean a massive ramp-up of the technology at a speed that has no equivalent in any other energy technologies in the past.

However, this could be the tipping point when tidal and wave power finally go mainstream and even begins to rival conventional renewables such as solar and wind.

Blue energy explosion

The EU has acknowledged that blue energy is destined to play a much bigger role in our energy mix as the world transitions to clean energy.

While still focusing chiefly on wind power, the commission’s upcoming offshore energy strategy will seek to boost other ocean energy sources, including wave and tidal, according to a draft policy document. The objective is for offshore wind to reach installed capacities of 60 gigawatts (GW) by 2030 and 1-3 GW for ocean energy by a similar date. That will pave the way for a much bigger buildout of 300 and 60 GW, for offshore wind and ocean power, respectively, by 2050.

Just how ambitious is that goal?

Well, the commission points out that aiming for 60 GW of ocean energy by 2050 will mean a massive ramp-up of the technology at a speed that has no equivalent in any other energy technologies in the past.

Even solar farms are usually bigger, such as the Bhadla Industrial Solar Park in Rajasthan, India, that is spread across 45km2 of land or the Tengger Desert Solar Park in China that covers 43km2. This means that even smaller countries with long enough stretches of coastline can use tidal power to compete with bigger, land-rich countries such as the United States, China, and India that can afford to dedicate large tracts of land for solar and wind projects.

Unfortunately, only Scotland currently generates any meaningful amounts of ocean power.

Scotland has enormous natural potential thanks to its impressive archipelago of islands with heavy tidal currents that can be easily tapped. Located in the Northern territory of the U.K., the nation now boasts the largest tidal array of underwater turbines in the world. Scotland’s tidal turbines have even exceeded expectations, with the MeyGen company now planning to vastly increase the number of installations.

Other leading countries developing ocean power technologies are Canada and the United Kingdom, both endowed with some of the highest tides anywhere in the world. Canada has a number of tidal energy schemes along its Atlantic coast, primarily in Nova Scotia, where scores of competing companies are testing various prototypes. The U.K. has more than 20 of these projects in the pipeline, some still in the research and development stage, but many in the process of being scaled up for deployment.

Meanwhile, China encourages tidal stream energy by offering a generous feed-in tariff 3x the price of fossil fuels. That’s similar to the rate deployed by countries that are trying to launch solar and wind power. The incentive is high enough that one Chinese company is already feeding ocean power into the main grid profitably.

As for the United States, the EIA says that the country lacks an abundance of suitable sites to harness ocean power and will have to be content with other low-carbon technologies such as solar, wind, and biofuels, where it has better competitive advantage.

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