Our world’s oceans, covering more than 70% of the Earth’s total surface, are an immense source of energy. Despite the fact that the marine ecosystem and environment today are hardly utilized for energy creation, Mørk et al. (2010) evaluated in their study for the IPCC that our oceans and waves alone could theoretically provide double the amount of worldwide electricity supply. Nonetheless, marine hydrokinetic energy (MHK), also called ocean/tidal energy/power, in 2016 provided only about 536 MW of operating energy capacity worldwide. (EMEC Orkney 2017; REN21 2017; World Energy Council 2016).
In its infancy in terms of commercial energy production, marine energy resources are infinite, yet costs are still high and the financial environment and investments into marine energy have been challenging. Nevertheless, significant amounts of research and development projects are now taking place in many countries, with fresh implementations of marine energy devices recently. Majority of these R&D projects target tidal streams and waves, and a smaller proportion on thermal and salinity gradients. According to REN21, Canada, Chile, the Republic of Korea, the United States and a number of countries in Europe now lead projects related to marine energy.
Along with other renewable energy sources, marine energy could contribute to the diversification of the global energy mix while supporting countries in climate change mitigation and being one option for meeting the world ́s continuously growing energy demand. Moreover, marine energy could have socio-economic benefits in terms of new job creation. The World Energy Council forecasts that if the energy production within the marine energy sector grows to 748 GW by 2050, this would create around 160.000 new jobs by 2030.
The European Commission ́s Maritime Forum, the Ocean Energy Forum, states that ocean energy is the next generation of renewables with the capability of creating a completely new industrial manufacturing sector and a notable export market. The Ocean Energy Forum also forecasts that by 2050, ocean energy could meet 10% of Europe’s electricity demand with a deployment of 100 GW ocean energy on the continent. Government incentives and policies have a significant role in supporting ocean energy projects. Public opinion in Europe has been in favor of ocean energy research and development, and implementation.
An important socio-economic consideration with ocean energy, similar to wind energy, is energy security since variability is high on an annual and seasonal level, or in some cases, even on an hourly level. Forecasting is currently possible to about one week ahead. According to The World Energy Council, under certain circumstances, ocean energy grids could face enormous pressure and coincide with alternative renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, with a possibility of leading to electricity blackouts if not resolved through energy storage systems.
Moreover, possible environmental impacts of ocean energy include marine species colliding/interacting with ocean energy devices such as turbines and OTEC (ocean thermal energy conversion). Furthermore, taking into consideration that underwater species communicate through sound, noise disturbance from ocean energy devices could have an impact on the behavior of marine species. Another potential risk on the marine environment could be the impact of ocean energy devices on the natural movement of water. Feasible advantages from ocean energy devices could include improved ecological and environmental water quality, reduced air and water pollution, or even attracting marine species as a safe haven and an artificial habitat.
According to IRENA, cyclical constellations and natural phenomena allow for a high proportion of predictability for tidal range technologies, since marine energy production does not rely upon weather conditions. Despite current challenges, such as high upfront costs and possible impacts upon the environment, many countries worldwide are currently developing technologies aiming at commercializing tidal energy prototypes and sites. One of the benefits of tidal energy is its minimal impact on landscapes, as opposed to for instance wind turbines that despite their low greenhouse gas emission impact on the environment seem to create some opposition amongst population when it comes to their visual impact. A real breakthrough in marine or tidal energy commercialization is currently still facing many challenges, including the fact that costs would have to come down quite significantly in order to make this kind of energy production competitive in comparison with other (renewable) energy sources. Taking into consideration the rapid development within for instance the solar PV energy sector within less than two decades, it is not impossible at all that the marine energy market may experience a breakthrough in the upcoming decade(s). What do you think?
Learn more by watching U.S. Department of Energy ́s video “Energy 101: Marine and Hydrokinetic Energy”:
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