The potential resources of marine energy are so vast that, according to one estimate, just 0.1% of the energy in ocean waves could supply the entire world's energy requirements five times over. If developed properly, the International Energy Agency Ocean Energy Systems (OES-IA) has estimated a global wave and tidal deployment potential of 337GW by 2050. But although the basic technology to do this has been around for several decades, a vicious cycle of high costs and lack of investment from industry has prevented marine energy from taking off in the same way as wind, for example. This is why the EC’s Intelligent Energy Europe (IEE), in its 2011 call for proposals, chose to back a two-year project called the Strategic Initiative for Ocean Energy (SI Ocean), that aims to identify practical solutions to the various barriers that have stood in the way of realising the full potential of wave and tidal stream energy up until now.
SI Ocean was officially launched in June 2012 and is led by a consortium of major European players in the field of marine energy research and development – DHI (Denmark), Wave Energy Centre / Centro de Energia das Ondas (WaveEC) (Portugal), Renewable Energy UK Association Limited (RenewableUK), The Carbon Trust (UK), The University of Edinburgh (UEDIN), (UK) and the EC’s Joint Research Centre (JRC). The aim is to make sure that Europe is producing as much electricity as possible from tidal stream and wave energy by 2020, paving the way for exponential growth to 2050. The project will bring together a "Project Group" of over 100 members representing key European target audiences and stakeholders.
There are three main strands to the SI Ocean project. The first aims to get a more precise idea of the size of the marine energy resource in Europe and specific sites where it should be developed first. A result of this work will be a wave and tidal ocean energy map of Europe (notably the Atlantic Arc). A second strand is to indicate the timeframe and concrete options for making marine energy competitive with other mainstream renewable energy sources. An outcome will be the strategic technology agenda, identifying development priorities and ways to reduce costs. A third strand will be to develop a market deployment strategy beyond the life of the project, identifying the main barriers to market growth and policy, along with strategic initiatives to tackle them. Best practices examples from key member states will be used to help target financial support and resources, to speed up commercialisation of the technology, and to improve and standardise regulatory and administrative frameworks across Europe.
Europe’s coasts – particularly the Atlantic Arc – have the lion’s share of untapped marine energy potential globally, with peaks of 100 kW/m and an average in the range of 30-70 kW/m. As a concrete example, according to SI Ocean partner, the Carbon Trust, if we could harness the potential wave power from the Rockwell Trough, a 1000 km stretch of water 150 km off the northwest coast of Scotland, it would be possible to generate 100 terawatt-hours (TW/h) of electricity or about 25 % of the UK’s current electricity needs. The Carbon Trust has estimated that if even half of that can be harnessed economically, wave and tidal stream energy would be able to compete with offshore wind, nuclear and other low carbon technologies.
But, although the technology to turn wave and tidal stream energy into electricity has been around since the 1970s, a range of barriers have prevented it from being developed commercially. The cost of producing the electricity has been too high – current prototypes cost around EUR 6 450 – EUR 13 500 /kW and the first production units are expected to come in at EUR 2 500 to 7 000 /kW. Meanwhile, the technology still lacks the economies of scale that would make it commercially viable, and in a vicious cycle, there has been a conspicuous absence of serious industrial investment, which has preferred to concentrate on wind power, for example.
However, a number of viable prototype devices have already been developed, essentially by academic institutions and small enterprises backed by public and EU funds. It is only very recently that major players such as Siemens, Alstom and Mitsubishi have come on board. In 2011, 3.4 MW of wave and tidal energy devices in advanced stages of technology development were being tested across Europe. But the target is to achieve 1.9 GW of installed wave and tidal stream energy by 2020, in line with action plans drafted by Member States in 2010. To reach these levels, says one SI Ocean document, “an aggressive deployment trajectory will be required.” And a vital part of this will involve increasing the involvement of the commercial sector, namely utilities, large industrial organizations and technology developers.
At present the UK is leading both research and investment in prototyping technology and carries out about half of all marine energy research globally. The European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) for example, based in Orkney (Scotland), is the first and only centre of its kind in the world to provide developers of both wave and tidal energy converters, with purpose-built, open-sea testing facilities. France and Ireland are now gearing up to replicate UK conditions. And while Spain and particularly Portugal have potential for viable marine energy production, they are comparatively risk-averse as they weather austerity measures.
A goal is for Europe to have 15 demonstration sites operating by 2020, five commercial arrays by 2025 and for the technology to be market-ready by 2030, with cost competitive commercial farms. According to the Carbon Trust, arrays of 5 MW will be in the water by 2015 and costs could come down to 20p/kWh by 2020. This would be followed by a dramatic cost reduction as the technology becomes commercial. Europe could be generating 4.5 GW by 2030 and 60 GW by 2050, says Carbon Trust, with as many as 60 000 jobs.
According to the IEE, “the European Ocean Energy Roadmap 2010-2050 provided initial estimates of the industry potential and defined high-level challenges and opportunities to eliminate market barriers for ocean energy. The SI Ocean project will take this roadmap further by filling gaps in current knowledge and understanding and also by delivering specific recommendations for future actions.”