Energy can be retrieved from the oceans in five basic ways: Tides, waves, tidal or marine currents, temperature gradients, and salinity gradients. Of these, wave energy is the most significant resource, according to ABS Energy Research, followed by power from salinity and thermal gradients.

Harnessing the Power of the Ocean: A Program Still in its Infancy

Contributed by | EBSCO Publishing

Watch List

  • According to ABS Energy Research, if the ocean power industry is to become financially viable, it will need to quickly draw upon the technology and know-how of the existing offshore industry. Recognizing that its future may well depend upon diversification, the offshore oil and gas industry has already made a substantial contribution to the success of offshore wind power. 
  • Financial viability will also require expanding funding sources beyond government grants and the support of public utilities. According to Daniel Englander, Greentech Media Research analyst, “a lot of companies are looking to go public and raise the money they need.”
  • Public and private companies are beginning to invest in ocean power. General Electric, The Carbon Trust, PG & E, Morgan Stanley and Atlantis Resources Corp. have all allocated funds to ocean power research and development efforts. 

Key Takeaways

  • Despite the enormous potential of ocean energy, it is the least developed form of alternative energy (by some estimates, 10-15 years behind wind energy). Cost, maintenance, and environmental concerns remain problematic.
  • Although the technology required to harness tidal energy is well established, tidal power is expensive. 
  • The Carbon Trust estimates that marine-generated electricity costs 10 times as much as electricity produced by traditional means. Capital costs, moreover, are higher than wind and solar. The economic viability of tidal power will depend upon consumer support and government incentives for some time.
  • Tidal systems can also be expensive to maintain. Turbines are susceptible to bio-fouling (the growth of aquatic life on or in the turbine), prone to damage from ocean debris and strong currents, and must be able to withstand powerful storms and, in some regions, gigantic ice floes.
  • Environmental concerns range from harming marine animals and plant-life to degradation of feeding grounds and migratory habitats; from massive silting and sedimentation (with barrages) to disruption of whale migration patterns and bird colonies. 
  • The appeal of tidal power is that it is clean and predictable. Tides can be predicted 100 years in advance; waves, 5 days in advance. Solar and wind power, by comparison, are erratic. Furthermore, the ocean has a “power density” 832 times greater than air, meaning that more power can be generated from smaller devices much more efficiently.

Related Sustainability Watch Reports
Energy and Fuels
Renewable Energy
Carbon Footprint

Executive Summary
Energy can be retrieved from the oceans in five basic ways: Tides, waves, tidal or marine currents, temperature gradients, and salinity gradients. Of these, wave energy is the most significant resource, according to ABS Energy Research, followed by power from salinity and thermal gradients. Tidal and marine current offer the smallest potential capacity by a wide margin. According to the British government-funded research group The Carbon Trust, ocean energy resources in their entirety have the potential to generate 4000 TW of electricity and will likely constitute up to 20% of Europe’s total renewable resources by 2020. 

Still mostly in the experimental stage (apart from the 40 year old tidal barrage at La Rance in France), over 300 wave and tidal systems have been proposed, with over 25 countries and 100 small companies engaged in the process, but few devices are advanced enough for commercial development. The key scientific challenges to be addressed are resource assessment and predictability, engineering design and manufacturability, installation requirements, operation and maintenance, survivability, reliability and cost reduction. Tidal barrages are generally agreed to be the most established and developed commercial systems, though only a small number have been built because of cost and environmental concerns. 

The visible success of wind and solar power, coupled with rising concerns about the environmental, economic and strategic costs of relying on fossil fuels, have breathed new life into ocean energy development. By some estimates the potential world energy produced by tides alone could be 1 million GWh per year (5% of the world’s current production). According to the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), Canada could generate 25% of its electric needs from tidal power, the UK and Portugal 20%, and the US 10%. However, only a fraction of that overall potential will be developed due to simple matters of practicality such as accessibility, difficulty of grid integration, and uncertain financial returns. Of the two sources, tidal power has more limited potential than wave power, since only about 40 sites on the planet have enough tidal differential to make electricity generation possible. 
For all the enthusiasm, very little electricity has actually been generated through tidal power except at scattered test sites around the world. Beyond the technical questions, there remain significant challenges with respect to funding and financing, government will, and utility support. Experts seem to agree that the next five years will be critical to the industry’s survival. Developers must demonstrate that tidal power technologies are commercially viable, that environmental concerns are unjustified, and that unwieldy regulatory processes are counter-productive to growth and not in the interest of the general public.

Further Background
According to ABS Energy Research, experimental tidal projects are being tested in Russia, UK, Australia, USA, Argentina, Canada, India, Korea, and Mexico. Potential sites for tidal energy stations have been identified in the UK, France, Eastern Canada, the Pacific coast of Russia, Korea, China, Mexico, and Chile. Other viable sites have been identified along the Patagonian coast of Argentina, Western Australia, and Western India.

The UK, and more specifically Scotland, with the largest ocean energy resources in Europe, is clearly the global leader in ocean energy research and development. The British government has invested $29 million in the creation of the European Marine Energy Center (EMEC), a research facility dedicated to carrying emerging technologies to commercial viability. In its commitment to generate about 35% of its electricity from renewable sources, the UK has several small-scale projects underway and is giving serious consideration to what would be the biggest construction project in the world and by far the largest renewable energy project in history: Building a 10 mile long tidal barrage across the Severn Estuary, capable of meeting 5% of the nation’s energy needs.

By comparison, support for ocean power in the US is lagging. Despite increased interest in the sector, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has issued only one license: To Finerva Renewable’s Makah Bay project in Washington State. Four preliminary licenses have been issued, two of which belong to Pacific Gas and Electric for wave projects off the coast of California. Last year, a marine renewable energy and development bill that would have appropriated $250 million from 2008 to 2012 never reached a vote in the House. Similarly, the DOE’s 2009 Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy budget proposed only $3million, a 70% decrease from the $9.9 million appropriated for 2008.

In a recent interview with the Ocean Renewable Energy Coalition, Elizabeth R. Butler of Pierce Atwood LLP assessed the current state of the ocean power industry by pointing to a need for a collaborative approach on the part of stakeholders. She cited the need for public-private partnerships to support the sector. Even though more Federal and state R&D monies have been promised, she said, private sector investment has diminished with the economic downturn.

Butler predicted that more international partnerships will be formed to expedite R & D development. She said that integrated wind and marine hydrokinetic test sites will be developed, with offshore aquaculture facilities added over time. R & D demonstration sites will expand along the US coastlines in near and deepwater environments, as well. She pointed to the likelihood of several near-shore wind farms and several commercial scale tidal power sites to be online in the next five years. “There will be an increasing focus on the use of marine renewable sources of power to service coastal populations rather than shipment of power from mid-western renewable power sources,” she declared.

Business Options & Best Practices
Tidal energy can be generated in two basic ways. One, a barrage (essentially a dam composed of gated sluices and low-head hydro turbines stretched across a channel or estuary), draws upon the potential energy resulting from water level differentials. The other, tidal stream or marine current, draws upon the kinetic energy of moving water with modular, underwater turbine systems. Of the two, barrages have been the traditional focus of most countries seeking to tap the energy of the oceans because they have a proven record of productivity and rely upon time-tested techniques similar to those used in hydro-electric dams. Tidal stream systems, which work much like wind turbines underwater but with a higher energy density, are more experimental but have received attention recently because they are considered to be less costly to construct, less environmentally intrusive, and have the virtue of being modular.

Widely Cited Barrage Projects & Technologies
La Rance, France – This 240 MW barrage is the largest and oldest tidal power facility in the world. Built in 1966, it is the only commercial plant in Europe, generating 640 million kWh of electricity each year. The barrage is comprised of Kaplan turbines with a small bank of sluices. Originally designed for two-way generation, it operates almost exclusively on ebb tides only.

  • When first built, the entrapped estuarial waters stagnated, a concern frequently raised by environmentalists, but the ecosystem recovered over time once the system began operation.
  • Despite 34 years of successful production, the operators, EDF, have no plans to build another system.

Annapolis Royal, Canada – This 17.8 MW barrage on the Bay of Fundy went into operation in 1984. It uses a Straflo turbine to produce more than 30 million kWh per year.
Jiangxia, China – China has several experimental tidal power stations in operation with a total capacity of 11 MW, the most significant of which is the plant in Jiangxia.

Widely Cited Tidal Stream or Marine Current Projects & Technologies
Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland – In April, 2008, the first commercial-scale tidal turbine from Marine Current Turbines (reputed to be the world leader in this technology) was installed in Strangford Narrows. Energy produced by the 1.2MW turbine, known as SeaGen, will be purchased by ESB Energy, a subsidiary of Ireland’s national electricity company, one of the first to offer tidal energy to its customers. The system will provide clean, renewable power to the equivalent of 1000 homes.

  • According to MCT’s Managing Director, Martin Wright, the SeaGen is “the world’s first commercial-scale tidal current system by a large margin,” more than four times as powerful as the second most powerful system, their own SeaFlow, which was installed five years ago off Lynmouth on the north Devon coast.
  • MCT’s next project is a 10.5MW tidal farm off the coast of Anglesey, North Wales, expected to be commissioned in 2011 or 2012.

East River, New York – Verdant Power’s Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy (RITE) Project is said to be the world’s first grid-connected kinetic hydropower system in the world. Producing more than 1,000kW/hrs/day during its demonstration phase, the project incorporates six Free Flow System turbines in array and, at full capacity, could produce 10MW of power, enough for 7,000 homes.

  • Plagued by mechanical problems at first (broken turbine blades), Verdant Power applied for a pilot license to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in November, 2008, asking to expand the RITE Project to a 30 turbine 1MW commercial field in the east channel. Plans are underway to further develop the west channel for an additional 2-4MW of installed capacity.
  • The RITE Project incorporated over $2 million in fish monitoring equipment which, to date, “have shown no observable evidence of increased fish mortality or injury, nor any irregular bird activity in the project area.”

Experimental & Proposed Tidal
Systems of Note

  • In what may prove to be a test-case for other nations seeking clean, renewable energy, plans for a ten-mile barrage across the River Severn - which could generate 5-10% of the UK’s electricity needs - are currently underway, though plagued by delays due to cost and environmental concerns. According to the UK Sustainable Development Commission, a barrage across the Severn would have a capacity of 8,640 MW and an estimated output of 17 terawatt hours a year. With a projected cost of over 11 billion pounds and environmental concerns that draw comparisons to the 40 year old tidal barrage at La Rance in France (the largest tidal power station in the world), the government’s feasibility and consultation process will likely take several years before a final decision is made. 
  • On a smaller and more practical scale, in November, 2007, British company Lunar Energy announced that it would build the world’s first deep-sea-tidal-energy farm off the coast of Pembrokshire in Wales. Eight underwater turbines will provide electricity for 5,000 homes. Construction began in 2008, and the proposed tidal energy turbines should be operational by 2010. 
  • By 2012, according to the BBC, “the world will see its first data center powered by tidal power. The Singapore-based company Atlantis Resources Corporation is teaming up with the datacenter builder Internet Villages International, based in Scotland, to build the data center in Scottish Pentland Firth. 
  • In an effort to tap 25% of the European Union’s entire tidal power potential and 10% of its wave energy potential, wave energy company Scottish Power plans to build the world’s largest wave-energy farm off the coast of Orkney Island. According to Environmental Leader, the energy farm could produce more than 1,300 megawatts of electricity by 2020, “enough to power a city the size of Seattle.”
  • Data Center Knowledge reports that Google has filed a patent for a “water-based data center” which would use the ocean for both power and cooling. Though not imminent, the plan is to generate 40 megawatts of electricity from the tides using at Pelamis Wave Energy Converter units that would float in 50-70 meters of water some 3-7 miles off shore. Seawater would cool the data center with pumps powered by the ocean, and seawater-to-freshwater heat exchangers.
  • Professor Annette von Jouanne of Oregon State University, the country’s top research center for wave power, predicts that in the very near future “wave parks” located 1 to 3 miles offshore will be able to deliver electric power to thousands of homes via underwater cables. She says that an array of buoys spread over a few square miles could generate 50 megawatts, enough power for 30,000 homes. To this end, Oregon State is building a national wave-energy research and demonstration facility to assist private and public research.
  • Though no timetable for development has been set, investment firm World Energy Research has announced an agreement to finance the development of Blue Energy Canada’s first 200 megawatts of commercial tidal power, at a cost of nearly half a billion dollars. Business Week Magazine recently ranked Blue Energy’s Davis Tidal Turbine number one among 20 technologies that will be important over the next decade.
  • Touted as the “biggest deal in the history of marine energy,” Aquamarine Power Ltd. has signed a development agreement with Airtricity, the renewable development division of Scottish and Southern Energy, to develop wave and tidal energy sites capable of hosting 1,000 megawatts of marine energy in the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Work on the first two sites has already begun, with plans to add further sites over the next three years. The project is scheduled for completion by 2020.
  • The Chinese government has signed an agreement with UK-based Tidal Electric for a tidal lagoon power project near the mouth of the Yalu river. According to ABS Energy Research, at 300 MW, this would be the largest tidal power project in the world. 

Regulatory Environment
Negotiating the regulatory environment is an expensive and time-consuming process for tidal and wave power developers. Some executives claim that the licensing process is tailored to much larger-scale energy projects and imposes unnecessary hurdles for experimental startups. Chris Sauer, the chief executive of Ocean Renewable Power, a company that has tested tidal turbines at the Bay of Fundy, says the basic process is equivalent to getting permission to “build the Grand Coulee Dam.” Verdant Power’s East River project took two and half years to get regulatory approval. According to Ronald F. Smith, the CEO of Verdant, “…the regulatory process is extremely biased towards doing nothing.” In addition to federal requirements, the Coast Guard, the Army Corp of Engineers and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration must be consulted on most projects, and numerous state and local regulations must be met. 

The controlling legislation for ocean energy has been EPAct 2005, which attempts to define roles for the various federal agencies: DOE (ocean energy, wave & hydro kinetic technology development); Minerals Management Service (Lead agency to permit nonextractive energy facilities including wave); Corp of Engineers (navigation obstructions in Federal waterways – water quality & approval of most transmission lines); FERC (approval of power supply contracts; National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (siting in and around protected areas). More specifically:

  • Section 931 (Renewable Energy) states that “the (DOE) Secretary shall conduct research, development, demonstration, and commercial application programs for (i) ocean energy, including wave energy and (iv) kinetic hydro turbines.
  • Section 388 (Alternate Related Energy Uses on the Continental Shelf) states that (1) in general “the (DOI) Secretary, in consultation with the Secretary of the Department in which the coast Guard is operating and other relevant departments and agencies of the Federal Government, may grant a lease, easement, or right-of-way on the outer Continental Shelf for activities not otherwise authorized in this Act, the Deepwater Port Act of 1974, the Ocean Thermal Energy conversion Act of 1980, or other applicable law, if those activities (C) produce or support production, transportation, or transmission of energy from sources other than oil and gas.
  • Section 388 (b)(1) states that in general “the Secretary of the Interior, in cooperation with the Secretary of Commerce, the Commandant of the Coast Guard, and the Secretary of Defense, shall establish an interagency comprehensive digital mapping initiative for the outer Continental Shelf to assist in decision making relating to the siting of activities under subsection (p) of section 8 of the Outer Continental Shelf. 

Recently, however, there are indications that the approval process will ease:

  • Perhaps the most significant development is that in March, 2009, the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) settled a long-standing dispute over who should regulate renewable energy projects in federal waters. In a joint statement issued by Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, and Acting Chairman of the Federal Regulatory Commission, Jon Wellinghoff, the two agencies stated that they are developing a process that clearly defines each agency’s role. The DOI’s Minerals Management Service will take the lead in permitting offshore wind power projects, while FERC will be responsible for licensing wave and tidal power. Secretary Salazar vows that this agreement will eliminate red tape and “allow the nation to capture the great power of wave, tidal, wind and solar power off our coasts.
  • The DOE announced in 2008 the selection of 14 research teams to receive up to $7.3 million in grants for advanced water power projects. Acting Assistant Secretary of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), John Mizroch, says “the DOE is aggressively pursuing development of next-generation technologies that are capable of producing renewable energy to add to our nation’s diverse energy portfolio.”
  • In September, 2009, Department of Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, announced $14.6 million in funding for the development of water power throughout the United States. The money will support 22 water power projects specifically “to advance the commercial viability, market acceptance and environmental performance” of new marine and hydrokinetic technologies.

Other developments of note:

  • In July, 2009, Massachusetts released a draft of a plan that would govern the permitting and management of projects such as tidal and wave energy farms. Hailed by the state as the “first comprehensive ocean management plan in the country,” it will ensure a more careful planning and permitting process for renewable energy and other industries operating in state waters. At the same time, it will offer specific guidelines to protect marine resources. The management plan would yield maps and studies detailing sensitive habitats that would require protection, as well as identify sites that are suitable for energy projects. This may well become a model for states on both the East and West Coasts.
  • In August, 2009, FERC and the state of Maine signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to coordinate procedures and schedules for review of tidal energy projects off the coast of Maine. The agreement is the first of its kind on the East Coast; FERC has signed two similar agreements with Oregon and Washington. The MOU ensures that FERC and the state of Maine will make every effort to develop renewable energy resources in an environmentally sensitive manner, while taking into account economic and cultural concerns.

Established Standards
In a 2006 Power Point presentation, Mike Robinson of the NREL characterized the current state of the tidal power industry as featuring a rush to development, projects before policies, a regulatory environment in flux, state and federal mandates being established “real time” without coordination, and too many agencies with resource management responsibility involved for NEPA compliance and approval. Little has changed since then, although there has been some consolidation of effort on the part of the Federal government with respect to oversight. 

Although researchers have demonstrated the possibility of capturing energy from the tides or ocean currents, observers note that the industry probably won’t gain momentum until manufacturers are able to standardize designs. Doing so would help utilities evaluate the potential return of ocean power vs. investment costs and enable regulatory agencies to evaluate the potential gain in CO2 reduction vs. environmental risk. There are signs that such consolidation is underway.

For example, Max Carcas, business development director for Edinburgh-based Pelamis Wave Power, says that Pelamis is considering ways to license the design and some of the technology behind its snake-like wave device to promote standards. In the future, other companies could then build ocean power devices based on its intellectual property.

Allan MacAskill, business development director for SeaEnergy Renewables, says that the Saltire Prize will likely help drive standardization. The Saltire Prize, announced by the Scottish government in December, 2008, will give $14 million to any group that can build a wave or tidal device capable of generating 100 gigawatt hours of power over a two year period.

At the same time, according to Carcas, before reliable standards can be developed, basic research still has to be conducted as to how waves and tides actually behave. Kinetic energy resources in a tidal stream are not as well understood as wave energy resources. The total in-stream resource for a particular site is the product of the kinetic power density and the cross-sectional area of the channel. However, kinetic power density varies considerably over a tidal cycle and can vary with depth. Measurements become even more complicated in open waters. Most analysts agree that computer simulations that take into account all the relevant variables have only become “adequate” within the last four years. 

To date most of the research conducted has been on individual devices, whereas commercial production will need to examine much larger design arrays for optimal performance and environmental impact. Determining the maximum number of turbines a given site can contain, for instance, must take into account the limitations of seabed space within the high-velocity transects and the requirement to maintain adequate navigation clearance. Calculating the ecological implications of changing a tidal flow might also place limits on how much energy could be extracted from a particular site.

In the US, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) began investigations of several sites in Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi and has called for modeling to improve the accuracy and detail of existing maps, to better calibrate the energy resources available, and to better understand the large-scale effects of kinetic energy extraction. In addition, because marine energy resources are so heavily linked to geography, EPRI has begun archiving resource information in a geographical information system (GIS) using a database supplied by the NREL.

It should be noted that for a barrage site, cost effectiveness traditionally has been thought of as a function of the size of the barrage (length and height) vs. the difference in height between high and low tides. These factors can be expressed in what is called a “Gibrat” ratio: The ratio of the length of the barrage to the annual energy production in kilowatt hours. The smaller the Gibrat site ratio, the more desirable the site. According to the Ocean Energy Council, the Gibrat ratio for La Rance is .36, for Severn .87, and for Passamaquoddy in the Bay of Fundy .92.

Related Entities & Resources

ABS Energy Research
Douglas-Westwood (See particularly “The World Wave & Tidal Market Report”)
Electric Power Research Institute
European Marine Energy Centre
International Energy Agency
Northwest National Renewable Energy Center
Ocean Energy Council
Ocean Renewable Energy Coalition
Ocean Renewable Energy Group
Pike Research
Prometheus Institute for Sustainable Development
The Carbon Trust
World Energy Council
Governmental Organizations
Department of Energy
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
Hawaii Natural Energy Institute
National Renewable Energy Laboratory
US Department of the Interior

DOI: Department of the Interior
EERE: Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
EMEC: European Marine Energy Centre
EPRI: Electric Power Research Institute
FERC: Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
GIS: Geographical Information System
NREL: National Renewable Energy Laboratory
OWET: Oregon Wave Energy Trust

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