About lesson from outside the EU: alternative markets for ocean energy growth
What other uses for marine energy are there?
Source: ©Columbia Power Technologies - NREL
Marine energy has utility beyond producing electrons for the grid. Over the past two years, the US Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO) has systematically investigated these potential non-grid uses for marine energy, and the opportunities are promising.
'The Water Power Technologies Office recognizes marine energy’s unique potential to serve distributed maritime markets where finding reliable sources of energy at sea is a major constraint.'
The use cases considered fall naturally within two thematic areas: Power at Sea and Resilient Coastal Communities. Power at Sea refers to the provision of power to applications that are off-grid and offshore, such as marine aquaculture, ocean observation, and charging underwater vehicles. Resilient Coastal Communities considers the energy and water needs of remote, island, and rural communities on or close to land, and includes applications like seawater desalination and isolated coastal microgrids.
WPTO has created a new R&D initiative to investigate these applications in more depth under the Powering the Blue EconomyTM initiative . After a year of research and review, we have just released a report of the same name, which explores each of these applications in detail.
Why explore these different applications?
Working in the ocean is difficult. Rapid corrosion, foundation scouring, biological growth, and extreme weather events are just a few of the challenges facing marine technology developers. The expectation for grid-compatible marine energy systems is that they will last years or decades in this hostile environment while providing reliable and cost-competitive energy for customers on shore. For those developers pursuing grid-scale power generation, a combination of technological efficiencies, economics, and risk mitigation have led them to link large machines together into wave farms or tidal arrays. Testing these large systems in such an unforgiving environment requires long, expensive, and onerous design cycles before they are sufficiently de-risked for the commercial sector. Progress is being made, but technologies have been slow to mature.
The marine energy sector must find new ways to get more devices into the water and attract new sources of funding to accelerate development.
What would the benefits be of these different applications?
Powering the Blue Economy™ is not only about advancing marine energy – it is also about understanding and enabling new markets.
'Removing power constraints and addressing the needs of other coastal and ocean energy end users could accelerate growth in the blue economy and create new opportunities for sustained economic development. Marine renewable energy presents a novel and innovative suite of technologies that could help remove some of these constraints.'
In ocean observation, for example, energy limitations restrict data collection both temporally and spatially. Consider unmanned underwater vehicles used for sub-sea inspections. These systems are limited in their mission range and duration by the capacity of batteries, requiring that the vehicle be recovered by a surface vessel periodically for recharging. This adds significant operational cost and burden. Marine energy could provide the electrons needed to recharge vehicle batteries at sea, drastically reducing the need and expense of a support vessel.
Marine aquaculture is migrating further offshore as economies of scale encourage larger farms which need more space. These facilities use energy for feed and waste dispersal, or even forced circulation. However, as farms migrate away from the coast, providing energy becomes a challenge. Marine energy systems could be co-located or even integrated with offshore aquaculture facilities, to mitigate this constraint and allow expansion further from shore.
Is the development time positively affected by this approach or would it delay the market uptake in the energy system?
By pursuing these alternative applications, technology development and market uptake should accelerate. In many of the non-grid applications considered, WPTO found no other viable means of power generation other than marine energy, and in those that did have an incumbent energy technology, it was often a limit to growth. These conditions should create a strong market pull.
Many of these potential markets have power needs far lower than that required for the grid; that means smaller devices, fewer regulatory restrictions, lower capital costs, and more suitable testing sites. New markets also mean new stakeholders, which could bring in a greater diversity of funding opportunities and investors. Pursuing these applications requires designing to a new set of user requirements, but many of the lessons learned and technologies developed will benefit grid-compatible systems as well.
Time will tell whether Powering the Blue EconomyTM has a significant impact on technological development and market uptake, but WPTO is confident and excited about the opportunities that await.