Hydrokinetic Technologies: Will the U.S. Lose Ocean Energy to Europe?

The earth is the water planet, so it should come as no great surprise that forms of water power have been one of the world’s most popular “renewable” energy sources. Yet the largest water power source of all – the ocean that covers three-quarters of earth – has yet to be tapped in any major way for power generation. There are three primary reasons for this:

The first is the nature of the ocean itself, a powerful resource that cannot be privately owned like land that typically serves as the foundation for site control for terrestrial power plants of all kinds;

The second is funding. Hydropower was heavily subsidized during the Great Depression, but little public investment has since been steered toward marine renewables with the exception of ocean thermal technologies, which were perceived to be a failure.

The third reason why the ocean has not yet been industrialized on behalf of energy production is that the technologies, materials and construction techniques did not exist until now to harness this renewable energy resource in any meaningful and cost effective way.

Ocean energy advocates face a daunting task in the light of recent proposed cuts in federal government support. With the best ocean current resource in the world in the Gulf Stream off the coast of Florida, excellent tidal sites in California, Maine, Washington and Alaska and prime wave resources off the coasts of California and Oregon, the U.S. is well positioned to be a global leader.

With good tidal power sites in the San Francisco Bay, and the nation’s most viable wave resource all along the North Coast, there is much at stake here for the Golden State.

Consider these simple facts: waves, tides and ocean currents are 800 times more powerful than the thin air that is wind. Tides can be predicted decades in advance, while the wind resource shifts so suddenly, forecasts are good for only a few hours at a time. The sun never shines at night.

Despite these inherent advantages, the total installed capacity of these hydrokinetic resources – a category that includes wave, tidal stream, ocean current, and ocean thermal – was less than 10 megawatts (MW) at the end of 2008 (enough power for about 10,000 homes). It is expected that within the next five to eight years, these emerging technologies will become commercialized to the point that they can begin competing for a share of the burgeoning market for carbon-free and non-polluting renewable resources. By 2015, almost 3,000 MW could be on-line around the world. That figure could jump to 200,000 MW by 2025.

A recent surge in interest in these new renewable options has generated a buzz, particularly in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Portugal, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand…and the U.S.

So far, President Obama wins high marks for shifting priorities on energy policy in the U.S. But his recent proposal to trim R&D funding for the emerging sector of “marine renewables” also often referred to as ocean power or hydrokinetic technologies – appears to be extremely short-sighted and misses the boat. Trimming the $40 million proposed for marine renewables in 2009 by 25 percent may allow the U.K. and Europe to take a commanding lead in the development of a potential “game changing” clean power that is much more powerful and predictable than either solar or wind, both big winners in Obama’s proposed R&D budgets for the federal Department of Energy.

Europe, particularly the U.K., Ireland and Portugal, are currently the best places to develop wave and tidal projects. Subsidy schemes there, as well as government funded test facilities, and streamlined permitting processes, will likely allow Europe to be the focal point of commercialization efforts in the near-term.

The U.S. has taken some promising steps recently resolving permitting issues for marine renewable technologies. But without more R&D, entrepreneurs already hit by the global economic meltdown may flounder and seek to do business on friendlier shores in Europe. While wave and tidal developers are offered lavish subsidies amounting to about 30 cents per kilowatt hour in Europe, the U.S. currently offers a measly 1 cent/kWh on top of wholesale rates, half of the subsidy currently being offered to wind power projects, a fully commercialized technology.

The ocean is a huge global resource that will ultimately have to be tapped to meet the energy needs of the world’s growing populations – without contributing to global climate change. If the U.S. wants to be part of the solution, and help economic development in regions decimated by the collapse of native fishing stocks, then strategic investments need to be made today. We need wind, we need solar, but we should also be smart and be in a good position to tap the immense power of our oceans.

[photo credit: martapiqs]

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2 comments on “Hydrokinetic Technologies: Will the U.S. Lose Ocean Energy to Europe?

Chris Cooke

In response to this well composed essay/blog I can only suggest some things positive and warn of others inscrutable that have come to be associated with “power” in any form, not the least of which is its generation.

No matter the fiscal restraints imposed by present circumstance or the reluctance of our sometimes wonderfully imperfect government to cover the tab in all things howsoever imperative (such as some might view hydrokinetic, or even to take a more vital stake in its nascent development) we are nonetheless blessed with an extraordinarily wealthy consortium of “Energy Companies” (formerly oil) that may yet be most democratically tapped by Congress and executive authority if need be to contribute most graciously to ocean research and development in the hydrokinetic field. Once persuaded of the the wisdom and subsequent profitability thereof, these companies may lead the entrepreneurial charge as they compete now globally where survival is at least the stepmother of invention. quite apart from the issuance of wistful government subsidies that may not be so lavish or even so forthcoming.

Simply put, the heavy endorsement of more tangible and accessible technologies such as wind and water (traditional damming) as well as the emergent field of active solar energy generation has well nigh blinded administration and individuals alike to the nearly inestimable benefits of hydrokinectic development ~ this due in part to the undersubsidization of solar for many years in its infancy, as well as the inertial lag in updating/prioritizing bureaucratic focus and legislative policy to reflect sustainable realities.

The government may be a bit slow to recognize the role tidal and estuarial resources can play, but I so state with common reservation. As global citizens must we not hesitate to overindulge our fetish for emergent technologies when they vye with visual aesthetics such as beaches, rivers, and oceans? Hydrokinectics, just like wind and solar and biofuels, leave a footprint of one sort or another ~ biofuels, for instance, convert plant life to exothermic energy products which contribute to global warming as they are burned and deprive starving populations of needed food reserves ~ a footprint that is still novel, uncharted, and may work in adversely to our best efforts to preserve oceans and save sea creatures that will inevitably be imperiled by turbines that still cannot guarantee the survival of any creature over three feet long!

Given the restrictions on current fiscal policies, the administration is understandably reluctant to throw good money after bad where other alternative energy projects have failed to become self-sustaining. Biofuels is controversy enough. Solar has yet to become commercially viable after forty five years of R&D. No, the government has. as you stated in your piece, instead chosen to stay with the familiar rather than confront the novel and more innovative technologies to date. To harken unto the call of the sea somehow undermines our faith in our collective ability to defeat the spectre of economic collapse with a few strokes of the pen. It will take more innovation, not less, and more conservation, not less, to solve this energy quandary.

As pertains to hydrokinetics, it remains to determine the best arrangements for placement, storage, and transmission of energy produced to practical purpose and profitable effect. Certainly, we as a country are well behind European nations in solving some of the key energy issues of our time. What of rapid transit here compared to other advanced nations? We are miserably behind Singapore, Hong Kong, and whole countries like Japan, Germany, France, Great Britain, etc. What of our penchant for per capita consumption in general?

I believe, however, that we in America are bound, with the cooperation of Mega-oil/Mega-energy companies which have been amassing unmnentionable profits over several decades, to lead via legislation and executive mandate, to develop practical solutions to our own over consumption of existing resources, renewable and otherwise. It is clearly up to us, and, to some degree, primarily up to us alone, to stand up for what we believe ultimately to be right ~ a combination of diminished consumption, improved conservation, and expanded green technologies, including the most novel and far reaching of such perhaps, hydrokinetics. We do not, I hope, as a conservationist society, look forward to the day when we view this earth as one giant power plant, replete with every gimick and quirck that can be attached thereto, beholden to us humans merely to satisfy our lustful cravings for yet more energy. There remains this narrow window of time in which we may yet reinterpret our manifest ~ to not merely extract from the land and sea unrelentingly for one more kilowatt hour of energy from each dime-sized bit of sunshine, each drop of dew, or kernel of corn. If this was not once our given purpose in life, then nor shall it be that which has brought us to the brink here to dwell. For a time we are created here upon this magnificent green/blue rock accompanied by fertile field and plentiful sea. Why now should we pillage such a haven for life in all its vital variety? Should we not check the waves, the wind, and the sun or question its effects on our earth before changing it in whatever mode. Must we not consider the collective wisdom implicit in all life to promote symbiotic cooperation, homeostatic equibrium, balance, equanimity? And before we forge ahead with one scheme or another, no matter how great its seeming reward, shall we consider the greatness of what is already in our midst and remember the home our earth has provided us, seeking first to conserve rather than to borrow from the well that is our legacy and our inheritance ~ we, the co-habitors of this planet shared by many, its steward and most fallible creation?

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