Brussels: ocean energy could fulfill all our energy needs

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Pelamis P2 wave energy generator (photo WWF)

Pelamis P2 wave energy generator (photo WWF)

The European Commission published an ambitious  Action Plan for “Blue Energy” on 20 January that should pave the way to a vibrant European ocean energy industry. Ocean Energy Europe, a consortium that includes Eon, Alstom and EDF, takes tidal and wave energy very seriously. It has a goal of 100,000 MW installed in European waters by 2050.

Ocean energy encompasses all offshore renewable energy technologies that are not wind. In practice, we’re talking primarily about wave and tidal energy, plus less developed thermal and salinity gradient power (based on exploiting differences in seawater temperature and salinity, respectively).

There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind about the potential: “The ocean energy resource available globally exceeds our present and projected future energy needs,” highlights the Commission in its action plan. The UK’s Carbon Trust estimates that wave and tidal energy could grow into a half-a-trillion Euro market by mid-century. The cherry on the cake is that Europe has a foot in the door already: most of the relevant technology developers are based there.

For EU policymakers, ocean energy is attractive as a way to help the EU create growth and jobs, and integrate other renewables into the energy mix: what’s special about wave and tidal power, is that they are not as intermittent as solar and wind, meaning that they could function as balancing capacity.

“Ocean energy is the next generation of renewable energy that will help wind and solar integrate into the electricity grid,” explains Rémi Gruet, policy and operations director at trade association Ocean Energy Europe (whose lead sponsors include Eon, Alstom and EDF). Ocean energies could generate electricity up to 100% of the time, depending on technology, Gruet adds. Moreover, because the technology – like wind turbines – is heavy, cumbersome and therefore expensive to transport, this industry is a good candidate for building from the ground up in Europe.

European industrial initiative

That said there are still plenty of challenges to tackle, including: technological development, difficult access to finance, inadequate grid and other supporting infrastructure (e.g. specialised boats for installation and maintenance), complex licensing procedures and uncertain environmental impacts.

Ocean energy is more expensive than offshore wind (and solar PV) and most technologies are at the prototype level, moving towards array demonstration projects of 3 to 10 turbines. The private sector has invested €600 million over the last seven years and Ocean Energy Europe hopes to leverage another €500m in public and private funds to 2020. Its long-term goal is to install 100 GW of ocean energy in Europe by 2050. That’s up from just 10MW today, with the UK the clear market leader. Most of the sector’s potential is on the Atlantic seaboard.

To kick-start the long road to 2050, the Commission proposes to create an Ocean Energy Forum to unite stakeholders and explore synergies with other marine industries such as offshore wind. Bringing together policymakers and industry, the goal is to define a strategic roadmap for the sector’s development by 2016. This could in turn lay the foundations for the Forum’s upgrade to a so-called European Industrial Initiative.

Several of these Initiatives, or public-private partnerships, were created under the EU’s 2007 Strategic Energy Technology (SET) plan, to promote specific technologies from wind to carbon capture and storage. More recently, the Commission has also announced an overhaul of energy R&D policy that would see it take a more system-led approach.

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