How North America can Benefit from UK Know-How in Ocean Energy

The United Kingdom is known for its pioneering work in wave, tidal and ocean current energy. The U.S. and Canada have vast marine resources and would benefit from partnerships with UK companies in a number of ways, including building expertise, sharing lessons learned and fostering industry growth.

By Michael Rosenfeld

As energy needs increase, global attention is shifting to the potential of harnessing the sustainable energy created by ocean tides, currents and waves – and to the United Kingdom.

The UK is gaining a successful track record in investment and innovation in wave, tidal and ocean current energy. Countries like the U.S. and Canada, which also have vast untapped marine resources, are beginning to look to UK companies as potential partners for building expertise, sharing lessons learned, and fostering the growth of this industry.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that the total potential energy from wave and tidal resources in the U.S. is about 1,400 terawatt-hours (TWh) per year, even taking into account resources that cannot be utilized due to interference with shipping, environmental or other factors. Considering that the entire U.S. uses 4,000 TWh of electricity per year, this is a significant potential resource. And according to Marine Renewables Canada, the total extractable mean power from wave, tidal and river current resources in Canada is about 0.035 TWh representing close to a fourth of Canada’s total electricity demand.

Environment ripe for development

Surrounded by water, the UK has the largest abundance of wave and tidal resources in Europe thanks to the strong winds coming off the Atlantic Ocean and the number of islands that make up the British Isles. In fact, the UK’s wave and tidal resources have the strength to potentially satisfy 20% of the UK’s electricity demand by 2020, according to the Crown Estate, a diverse UK property organization that manages properties owned by the Crown, including a significant amount of the seabed around the UK. These significant natural wave and tidal resources make the UK an ideal place for companies to test and deploy wave and tidal technologies.

The real key to industry growth in the UK, however, is a government that is deeply committed to growing clean energy sources and creating a favorable environment for companies to bring their innovation to the marketplace. The British government has enacted a series of low-carbon policies to enable the transition to a green economy, buoying the marine energy industry, among others. The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) oversees these policies and initiatives to guide the country toward a low-carbon economy.

One such policy is the Renewables Obligation, which requires that a defined portion of the energy suppliers deliver comes from renewable sources such as hydroelectric, offshore wind, tidal and wave power. To accelerate growth of the wave, tidal and ocean current energy sector and to help secure financial resources for companies, the UK government intends to support the Renewables Obligation by funding early-phase commercial wave and tidal energy projects.

The successful testing of units such as the one shown here in the UK provide important lessons for North American to benefit from.
The successful testing of units such as the one shown here in the UK provide important lessons for North American to benefit from.

Another favorable policy is DECC’s Electricity Market Reform Contracts for Difference (CfD), which provides incentives for green energy generators. CfD incentives include lowering costs to developers for project financing by reducing energy wholesale prices and by paying the generator the difference between the cost of investing in low-carbon technology, known as the strike price, and the average market price for electricity, known as the reference price.

The CfD will be provided to “established” technologies – including onshore wind, solar photovoltaic and landfill gas projects – on a competitive basis, and to “less established” energy technologies – such as offshore wind, wave, tidal stream and geothermal projects – on a noncompetitive basis, budget allowing. The program is designed to encourage domestic and international investment in low-carbon electricity generation, thereby helping the UK meet its carbon reduction goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050.

The UK government has also invested heavily in research and development in wave and tidal technologies. For example, launched in 2010 by Scottish Enterprise – Scotland’s agency for economic development, innovation and investment – the Scottish WATERS Initiative is a US$23.6 million (£13 million) government-backed project that seeks to offset the high development cost associated with wave and tidal technologies in an effort to spur investment and innovation among UK companies.

Due to the interest in and success of the project, in 2012 the government provided an additional US$9.97 million (£6 million) to fund the testing of new wave and tidal energy technologies in the seas around Scotland. In 2014, Scottish Enterprise, in collaboration with Highlands & Islands Enterprise, launched the third round of the remaining funding from the WATERS fund, £6 million, to promote research and development to bring leading marine energy devices to commercial use.

The development of wave and tidal technologies is challenging and expensive, as the environments in which these technologies need to be installed and operated are unpredictable. Companies involved in the creation of wave and tidal innovations often have a difficult time striking a balance between technology development and testing and the need to raise and sustain investment capital to support day-to-day operations. The funding provided by the WATERS initiative to Scottish wave and tidal energy companies helps attract match funding thereby enabling the companies to focus on the demonstration projects that are critical to the success of their business and the industry as a whole.

U.S. government support

Like the UK, the U.S. is also investing in emerging opportunities surrounding the wave and tidal energy market through funding, research and access to data. As part of the Obama Administration’s all-of-the-above energy strategy, the U.S. DOE announced US$16 million in funding in the summer of 2013 for 17 projects seeking to extract energy from waves, tides and currents off U.S. coastlines.

This funding support followed on the heels of DOE’s release of two reports in 2013 that analyzed the enormous potential for extracting energy from wave and tidal resources from U.S. bodies of water. These assessments show that water power – which includes conventional hydropower, wave, tidal and other water power resources – has the potential to provide 15% of the U.S.’ electricity needs by 2030.

DOE’s two reports, “Mapping and Assessment of the United States Ocean Wave Energy Resource” and “Assessment of Energy Production Potential from Tidal Streams in the United States,” calculate the maximum kinetic energy available from waves and tides off of U.S. coastlines that can be converted into future energy production. Currently, the U.S. uses about 4,000 TWh of electricity per year. Through technological analysis and the two assessments, DOE estimates that one-third of the nation’s total electricity usage, about 1,400 TWh per year, could eventually be produced from waves and tidal currents.

To support these reports, DOE released an online database named “Tethys” after the Greek titan-goddess of the ocean. The database, at, catalogs marine energy knowledge from around the world, pulled from environmental monitoring and research efforts on wave, tidal and energy development. In addition to the online database, Tethys includes an interactive map of locations of research projects around the world.

This database is a terrific resource for project developers and industry regulators in siting and permitting future projects and attracting global ocean technology developers to deploy their projects within U.S. borders.

UK marine energy parks offer testing ground

The U.S. can look to the UK for not only policy guidance but as a testing ground for new wave and tidal technologies. These research and development centers, known as marine energy parks, are leading advances in wave and tidal energy installations.

These centers provide wave and tidal power companies with the opportunity to connect with market leaders, test and improve their technologies, and enhance their business models to ensure success and help secure investment capital.

Following are some of the key wave and tidal research centers that are developing technologies to support the expansion of the marine energy market in the UK and around the world:

– The National Renewable Energy Centre (Narec) in Blyth, Northumberland, provides developers with the resources needed to transition early prototypes to large-scale development of wave and tidal technologies. Narec has invested more than US$249 million (£150 million) of UK government and European Regional Development Funding in capabilities that enable companies to deliver low-cost and more reliable offshore wind, wave and tidal electricity. Narec provides marine renewable and subsea engineering companies with access to fully controlled onshore saltwater environments, allowing companies to test the reliability and performance of these technologies more quickly and efficiently. The facility also includes a wave flume device to enable testing for small-scale technologies.

– The European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), a marine energy park located in Orkney, Scotland, is the first, and only, center to provide wave and tidal energy developers the opportunity to test their products in a purpose-built accredited open-sea testing facility. Companies are flocking to this facility to test which products and technologies can succeed in even the harshest of marine environments.

– Wavehub is part of the South West Marine Energy Park in Cornwall, Great Britain. Wavehub is a grid-connected offshore facility that supports the large-scale testing of new wave and tidal energy technologies. The facility has a 25-year lease of 8 square km of sea bed connected to a grid by a 25km subsea cable that will allow developers to test in real-time if their technologies can withstand varying marine environments. Wavehub recently announced a partnership with Seatricity, a UK-based wave energy company that will use the facility to develop a 10-MW array by 2015.

– The SuperGen Marine Research Programme was launched in 2003 and unites academic institutions to address the growing interest in wave and tidal energy. The core five academic institutions – the University of Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt University, Lancaster University, Queens University Belfast and the University of Strathclyde – conduct research to increase their knowledge of sea-device interactions of wave energy.

– The Peninsular Institute for Marine Renewable Energy (PRIMaRE) was created by the Universities of Plymouth and Exeter to bring together international researchers, research facilities and academia to address the challenges that businesses face when it comes to developing wave and tidal energy technologies and accelerate development within the industry.

Due to their capabilities and advanced technological environments, these research centers are attracting major power companies, such as Voith Hydro and Siemens, which are looking to collaborate with academia and government to advance ocean power technologies. They provide fertile testing ground for U.S. companies as well to connect with other global industry leaders, test new technologies, and hone their knowledge in the sector. This experience and know-how can then be brought back to the U.S. to accelerate market growth.

Fledgling Industry in North America

To date, the U.S. has not been able to replicate these types of “test beds” due to lack of funding, but the federal government is beginning to support more ocean energy projects.

In March, DOE announced $10 million in funding to strengthen the U.S. marine and hydrokinetic (MHK) energy industry, which includes wave and tidal energy sources.

As mentioned above, in August 2013, DOE announced an additional $16 million for 17 projects to help sustainably and efficiently capture energy from waves, tides and currents. The projects included marine and hydrokinetic system performance advancement, as well as environmental projects to study implications of deploying certain ocean energy technologies.

One recipient, Ocean Energy LLC, designed, built and successfully tested a small scale prototype of a cost‐effective hull design for its deep‐water wave energy device.

Another recipient, Ocean Renewable Power Company used the funds to investigate, analyze, and model a control system for its grid‐connected TidGen System that predicts tidal conditions and uses them to adjust turbine settings for optimal performance.

With continued government support, ocean energy developers can continue to test and improve on technologies to get them off the ground.

In Canada, attention for ocean energy is currently focused on the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia, which is home to the highest tides in the world. The Fundy Ocean Research Center for Energy (FORCE) is Canada’s leading research center for in-stream tidal energy. The Fundy Ocean Research Center for Energy hosts technology developers and helps provide the electrical infrastructure to connect projects to the grid. The center also provides environmental monitoring for various projects – a key issue for Canada’s ocean energy industry.

Through knowledge-sharing and collaboration with global counterparts like the UK, the U.S. and Canada have a tremendous opportunity to grow their expertise and attract the innovation and investment needed to foster its emerging marine wave and tidal and ocean current energy markets. By working together, the UK and North America can take full advantage of the wave and tidal currents as an efficient and sustainable clean energy resource, making a real impact on the environment and the economy.

Michael Rosenfeld is vice consul – USA clean technology sector lead for North America for UK Trade & Investment, the British government’s international business development department.

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