Tidal energy seems unable to break out of its infancy and into the market. The zero-carbon, renewable form of energy production has major potential for contributing a significant amount of energy to the grid, particularly in Europe and Asia, without contributing to (or possibly even lowering) their carbon footprints. However, there may be more working against tidal energy than it has going for it. Banks seem unwilling to back tidal ventures due to unproven profit margins, and environmentalists aren’t totally sold on it either.
However, as the urgency of mitigating emissions and the effects of climate change sets in and the world moves toward decarbonization in earnest, all forms of low-carbon energy production deserve a fair trial. In August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations (UN) released their landmark 6th Assessment Report on the global status of climate change, and the outlook is grim, to say the least. The UN called the report a “code red for humanity” which showed that we have already irreversibly changed the climate and that avoiding the most catastrophic impacts of climate change will require swift and sweeping action.
Tidal energy could make a significant contribution to the decarbonization movement if it’s able to get off the ground and scale up to become competitive in the energy market. “Tidal energy could be a game-changer for a greener, more sustainable economy as the EU [European Union] moves towards a target of 40-percent renewables in its overall energy mix by 2030,” touts a recent report by the EU observer. “It could deliver 100 GW of capacity by 2050 – equivalent to 10 percent of Europe's electricity consumption today.”
Since water is denser than air, tidal energy has the potential to be much more powerful and productive than wind. What’s more, tidal isn’t restricted by the same issues of variability that impede solar and wind energy. While both of those forms of renewable energy extraction depend on the weather and the time of day, tidal is extremely reliable, relying on the natural, consistent, and constant cycles of tides that are controlled by the gravitational pull of the moon. Because of this, the flow of tidal energy to the grid could be as consistent as energy derived from fossil fuels, without necessitating energy storage.
However, there are some major environmental downsides to tidal energy. While it is a boon for the climate, releasing zero greenhouse gases and potentially offsetting emissions that would result from the energy production that tidal could displace, tidal poses a considerable threat to oceanic environments if it is not designed and managed with utmost care. Tidal turbines severely disrupt the same tidal streams that they are extracting energy from and can harm marine life that gets caught in the blades.
There are other forms of tidal energy besides “generators” powered by turbines. The other two significant forms are barrages, which is essentially a dam, and tidal lagoons. Barrages can have severe negative environmental externalities by disrupting marine ecosystems and creating large amounts of silt. One such system in Brittany, France has already led to the extinction of a local flatfish in the area. Tidal lagoons are a much more environmentally friendly form of tidal energy, taking place in protected, man-made coastal pools, but have a much lower energy capacity.
Despite these significant downsides, there are regions, particularly around the UK and China, which are particularly well suited to tidal energy expansion, and many climate advocates argue that we can’t afford to not expand tidal energy due to its high potential for dependable, zero-emissions power production. But building new tidal energy plants is an expensive venture, and so far banks seem unconvinced that they’ll get a significant enough return on investment.
“To get off the ground, tidal companies need national governments to introduce revenue support schemes, guaranteed prices, and decent bank loan rates,” EU Observer reports. So far, tidal has none of that. But as the European Union struggles through an energy crisis that is set to worsen over the winter months, banks may become more amenable to backing new forms of energy production, especially ones that are as reliable as tidal energy. And while building up tidal is pricey, the infrastructure lasts for a long time, with an asset life of around 120 years. The current energy squeeze, paired with the urgent need to lower global greenhouse gas emissions, could be the final push needed to give tidal a chance to find a competitive edge in energy markets.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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