Ocean energy braving the waves – and riding the tides

DISPATCHES | A banner month for the sector was topped by first power from key arrays but the commercial seas remain choppy, writes Darius Snieckus

King Canute must be patron saint to gatherings of the marine renewable energy fraternity.

As with the one-time ruler of the North Sea Empire, there is a profoundly shared understanding of the indomitable energy of the seas, of ebb and flow and rise and fall, among all those who work in an industry that has fought and won, and lost – and fought on.

That unconquerable spirit has been much needed over recent years as the carcases of machines that had been standard-bearers for the sector as it navigated toward industrialisation – SeaGen, Oyster, Pelamis – were returned one after another to dry-dock.

After the many successes and setbacks, news over recent weeks – even for a sector that has rightly always highlighted the predictability of its resource – came almost unforeseen and in quick succession.

The 400MW MeyGen project in Scotland’s Pentland Firth switched on the first of a quartet of tidal turbines making up its pilot phase; DCNS OpenHydro sailed out a second generation device and plugged it in in the Bay of Fundy off Canada; Scotrenewables lowered its 2MW model – the most powerful yet devised – under the waves at the European Marine Energy Centre; Carnegie got the go-ahead for stage one of a 15MW wave array at the UK’s WaveHub; and DP Energy and FPP unveiled plans for vast arrays of hybrid floating wind-wave stations off Scotland and Wales. All in around a month.

The EU is offering a steadying hand with €320m ($340m) in new money to support tidal and wave across the wide “valley of death” between pilot projects and commercialisation, part of a “comprehensive, inclusive and ambitious plan for building up ocean energy from the initial R&D all the way to the industrial roll-out,” as stated here at Ocean Energy Europe’s annual conference, by environment commissioner Karmenu Vella.

The tantalising prize remains nothing less than industry-making:  100GW of ocean energy deployed by 2050, meeting some 10% of Europe’s current demand, so a game-changer for the continent’s electricity supply and central to the wider re-industrialisation, employment creation, energy security, and, most importantly, decarbonisation, for which renewables are a byword.

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As OEE policy director Jacopo Moccia wrote recently in Recharge Circuit, "After take-off, ocean energy will (maybe) slowly, but (definitely) surely, become the next big thing in European power production."

This extended existential crisis is the badge of (ongoing) marginalisation. Despite numerous sets of calculations that point to the sector’s potential for a fleet-wide plant capacity that could match offshore wind off Europe, along with the good news of the various industrial landmarks in the past month has come the bad.

Spiritual home of tidal and wave power, the UK has nonetheless persisted in its short-sighted energy policies with the recent contracts for difference round where no ring-fenced allocation was afforded for smaller projects, meaning ocean energy developers now face the futile task of trying to compete on price with offshore wind – though the two are consensually a decade apart in their industrial progress.

Ocean energy feels to be in a period of generational reinvention. The first arrays – EDF’s 4MW Paimpol Brehat project off Brittany, MeyGen's 6MW pilot phase, and the four multi-megawatt designs being deployed at the Force centre in the Canadian maritimes, are succeeding the solo prototypes.

The technology is getting better and the sector smarter. MeyGen is sharing a distributed grid connection with a windfarm in Caithness, taking on a power-smoothing and balancing role driven by the clockwork cycles of waves and tides; DP Energy and Floating Power Plant have tied up to explore two  200MW UK sites for a hybrid floating-wind-and-wave unit; and ocean energy developers, including Italian renewables giant Enel, are looking to diesel-fuelled islands and remote locations for first installations where the cost of energy thresholds are more forgiving.

"Ocean energy technology is getting better and the sector smarter"

"We are at a point in the history of tidal  and wave technologies where even the most generous support incentives [for tidal and wave technologies], in the region of €300/MWh might barely be enough,” says Riccardo Amoroso, head of innovation and sustainability for global renewable energies at Enel, which is planning tests on a small-scale wave energy converter at a test site off Chile with DCNS. "We need to find ways of solving this."​

“On many islands the cost of energy is much higher than this of course, as high as €750/MWh where diesel is being flown in. In markets like this, at that cost for a 'medium-size' island, there could be good opportunities for wave energy.

“And then if you can connect some cheap PV with the more predictable wave power resource, and integrate them with an energy storage and management system to co-ordinate the production and consumption, you have a very efficient microgrid. This allows the technology to get proven at scale, reducing its cost and increasing its robustness and reliability.”

DCNS – a group that knows something about reinvention, having been born of the French naval industry and present “heir” to the country’s naval dockyards – has adopted an “integrated” approach: from the outset making tidal power part of a business division that includes floating wind and ocean thermal energy conversion (Otec) projects.

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“We are investing heavily in all these technologies right now,” says Thierry Kalanquin, senior vice president of energies and marine infrastructure at DCNS. The company is just over half-way through a €350m technnology commercialisation spend, with a first of its SeaReed floating wind turbines now off the CAD screen and heading for the water, tidal turbines spinning off France and Canada, and “massive” plans cooking for Otec.

Ocean renewables is swimming hard in the current.  The next evolution is being looked after – another sign of the industry’s rapid maturation and long-term vision – with the €11m Foresea technology development scheme, which will get prototypes wired in at various  “real sea” testing sites around Europe.

In the midst of all this, MeyGen developer Atlantis Resources held a turbine-naming ceremony, dubbing one the 1.5MW Andritz Hammerfest Hydro machines before it was sailed out for installation in a stretch of the Pentland Firth – The Calum Davidson.

Davidson, but for whom MeyGen “would not exist”, was a man of the tidal stripe, as Atlantis chief Tim Cornelius remarked: “We faced many problems along the path to financial close: finance, licenses, leases, grid .... To be in this industry, you need to be resilient, tenacious, dedicated and determined – a pretty accurate description of Calum.”

The ocean energy industry is changing, from the blade tip to the bus-bar.

Wind and solar power are winning the wider energy argument already by cost alone, and with battery and demand-side software are making the economics of a power system based on high volumes renewables unassailable. Add to this a flow of power as old the moon and as constant, and the circle is squared.

This year looks like being the start of ocean energy’s voyage into the mainstream.

In Dispatches, Recharge journalists offer a personal insight into the issues shaping the development of renewable energy around the world