Infinite Potential, But . . .
Research and Development (R&D) is usually a painfully slow process. Take the case of the marine energy technology. It has been in development for over four decades now. Yet, only tidal range technology is widely deployed. Other technologies are nautical miles away from the commercial stage.
Total annual potential of ocean energy is estimated to be between 20,000 terawatt-hours (TWh) and 80,000TWh. This is between one and four times the current global demand for electricity.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), total global installed ocean power was only 530MW in 2012 with tidal range power contributing 517MW. Ocean energy makes up only 0.01% of the total electricity produced from renewable sources, to say nothing of its contribution to total electricity generated from all sources.
Ocean energy’s contribution to total global energy production is meager and will continue to be so till 2020 at least because the challenges of working in an offshore environment make the ocean energy technologies fall significantly behind those for tapping other renewable sources such as wind and solar.
Apart from technological limitations, economical, environmental-social, and infrastructural challenges continue to play spoilsport. The situation calls for proactive policy intervention and broad partnerships.
Merits, Types, & Features
Ocean energy is clean, non-CO2-emiting energy. It also creates immense ‘green’ employment opportunities. Ocean Energy Systems (OES), an international technology collaboration under the IEA, believes developments in ocean energy could create 1.2million direct jobs by 2050.
Ocean energy is sourced from (with IEA estimates for their global potential):
- Tidal Range (1,200TWh/yr)
- Wave (29,500TWh/yr)
- Ocean Thermal (44,000TWh/yr)
- Salinity Gradient (1,650TWh/yr)
- Offshore Wind
- Tidal Stream
United Kingdom is the undisputed leader in generating energy from tidal currents (6.7MW per year), waves (4.3MW), and offshore wind (3.5GW). France produces 240MW tidal energy.
Tidal range technologies are most advanced at present although they are in the pre-commercial stage while wave energy and tidal stream technologies hold the maximum potential in the medium term.
Characteristics of ocean energy harnessing technologies:
- main challenge is to cut costs and boost reliability
- development is uncertain due to wide variability in project costs and lack of empirical cost data
- may mature after 2020 although attaining maturity depends more on investment, innovation, deployment, and learning
- substantial patent activity especially regarding wave and tidal stream energy with over 150 patents filed annually between 2009 and 2013 indicates high level of initial interest
Apart from the challenges presented by the offshore environment, early over-optimism by device developers, slow and cumbersome research, and the financial crisis of 2008 (that retarded the flow of investments) are slowing the pace of technological advance in this field.
Technical, economic, environmental-social, and infrastructural barriers make developments challenging. Technologies for harnessing salinity gradient, ocean thermal, and ocean current energy are least developed. Policy makers can:
- map resources to identify ocean energy technologies most suited for a particular region
provide research grants
- promote test facilities, technology transfer, international collaboration, and joint research-development-demonstration
- facilitate sharing of best practices
- spread risk among all potential stakeholders
Reducing the risk and cost profile of ocean energy technologies is the next step. Currently, these technologies are more expensive than other renewable technologies. Policy makers will do well to:
- quantify additional benefits to create favorable investment climate for the technology
- offer capital support at demonstration stage
- conduct road mapping
- declare a premium price per unit generated energy to attract manufacturers
- promote niche markets where the technology can find application
Social-Environmental obstacles prop up while deploying the technology at the commercial stage. Policy makers will have to:
- engage early with people
- grant project approvals quickly and transparently
- promote sharing of baseline data to speed up development
Infrastructural deficits can arise in the supply chain and network grids. Policy makers can:
- promote capacity addition among local companies and development agencies
- frame network plans to include ocean energy technology developments
Governments are rising to the occasion with programs and executing agencies. The UK government set up the Department of Energy and Climate Change in 2011 as the nodal agency to deal with renewable energy. Japan established the Ocean Energy Technological Development Research Center while Spain came up with the Renewable Energy Plan 2011-20.
Multinational private players such as Alstom, Siemens AG, and Andritz Hydro GmhH have invested in ocean energy related companies such as AWS Ocean Energy, Rolls Royce Tidal Generation, Marine Current Turbines and the like. The segment also witnessed numerous fundraisers.
Slow technological advance might seem contradictory to today’s fast changing world, but the harder the battle, the sweeter the victory. Especially when the struggle involves an entity as fundamental as energy.