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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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Technological Breakthroughs Fuel Bright Future for Tidal Power

  • Tidal energy production is recognized for its potential to provide vast amounts of clean energy, utilizing predictable tidal currents through methods like tidal streams, barrages, and tidal lagoons.
  • Environmental concerns and technological challenges have historically hindered the rapid development of tidal energy projects, despite its advantages in predictable and renewable power generation.
  • Recent investments by the U.S. Department of Energy and studies highlighting the U.K.'s potential for tidal energy development signal a growing interest in overcoming these obstacles and integrating tidal power into national clean energy strategies.

Tidal energy is a renewable energy source produced using the natural tidal current of the ocean. Since the 20th century, tidal currents have been used worldwide to produce electricity. There are three ways to produce tidal energy: tidal streams, barrages, and tidal lagoons. Typically, turbines are positioned in tidal streams – fast-flowing bodies of water, to produce a reliable flow of electricity. As tides are predictable, it makes the generation of electricity safe and reliable. To date, tidal energy is in its infancy, with only a fraction of the world’s potential tidal power being used to generate clean electricity. Yet, tidal energy can be produced anywhere that the tides are strong enough and the terrain is suitable for the installation of generators and other necessary equipment. 

Despite the potential to produce vast amounts of clean energy, many countries are still showing little interest in tidal power, with no projects in the United States, for example. The U.S. is concerned about the legal rights to underwater land, as well as the potential environmental impact of operations. Further, experts believe the technology needs to be improved to increase the amount of energy that tides can produce while also avoiding the negative impact on the environment. Technological innovations would likely attract higher levels of funding from investors looking to make a profit from alternative renewable energy sources. 

While tidal energy projects could provide large amounts of clean energy, some experts worry about the impact of the operations on the environment. Large machines must be installed to use the strength of the tides to produce energy. However, these machines may disrupt the tide they are attempting to harness. Barrage systems, which rely on a large dam structure to power turbines by storing and releasing water, can change the water level in an area, harming the land and therefore the flora and fauna. It can also change the salinity of the water, which has a negative impact on marine life. 

Despite environmental concerns, many believe that tidal energy could support a green transition by providing vast amounts of carbon-free energy. Further, greater innovation could improve the methods used to produce tidal energy, ensuring they have a less severe impact on the environment. Some countries have more potential for the development of tidal projects than others, including China, France, England, Canada, and Russia. 

Although tidal energy is in its infancy, some governments are investing in new technology and pilot projects to see if tidal energy can be used to generate clean electricity on a commercial scale. In February, the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) announced it would be providing $6 million in investment for two marine energy projects. The funding will be divided between Orcas Power and Light Cooperative (OPALCO), based in Eastsound, Washington, and a team led by the Ocean Renewable Power Company (ORPC), in Portland, Maine. 

OPALCO plans to install a tidal energy turbine in the Rosario Strait of the San Juan Islands to produce around 2 MW of power, with a pilot project expected to provide electricity to the islanders. ORPC will install two tidal energy devices in the Cook Inlet in Alaska, to explore the potential for energy generation in the region. The Cook Inlet is thought to be the largest tidal energy resource in the U.S. The U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm stated, “With marine energy we can sustainably harness the power of the ocean and rivers, providing rural and remote communities with clean reliable power… The projects announced today are part of the largest investment by the federal government to advance the technology to capture energy from ocean tides and river currents while helping decarbonize hard-to-reach coastal communities across the country and increasing their energy independence and resilience by increasing use of locally generated energy.”

Meanwhile, a report from LUT University in Finland assessed the ways in which the U.K. may develop a 100 percent clean energy system by 2050. In the report, the researchers found that a successful transition would require the development of at least 27 GW of wave and tidal energy capacity by the mid-century. This would need to be supported by the rollout of more battery storage capacity. The report suggests that increasing the U.K.’s tidal energy capacity, alongside other renewable energy sources, could help it move away from the high costs of fossil and nuclear-based energy. 

The costs associated with producing tidal energy have nearly halved since 2018 thanks to technological innovations, and they are expected to fall further as commercial-scale tidal energy projects become more common. Tidal projects have been included in U.K. clean energy auctions in recent years, although the government has announced no clear strategy for tidal power. The U.K.’s tidal power installed capacity is expected to increase from around 10.4 MW at present to over 50 MW by 2027.

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com 


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