Ocean power in Europe: what’s holding back the tide?

6 April 2016 (Last Updated June 5th, 2020 15:50)

Large-scale development of European ocean power could boost energy security, provide local jobs and sustainable economic growth, according to the European Committee of the Regions (CoR); but what will it take for this nascent energy sector to commercialise on a grand scale?

Ocean power in Europe: what’s holding back the tide?

Deep Green

Europe is the current world leader in the ocean power technology space, having developed first-of-its-kind pioneering centres such as the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney, UK. The centre provides developers of both wave and tidal energy converters with purpose-built open-sea testing facilities.

The continent has also spawned industry-leading companies such as Swedish firm Minesto, whose prototype of its Deep Green array technology is currently undergoing trials off Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland. Europe is also the location for pioneering projects such as the Tidal Lagoon in Swansea Bay, Wales.

According to the CoR opinion paper created by Rhodri Glyn Thomas, a member of the Welsh Assembly in October, the industry has the potential to provide up to half a million jobs in the EU by 2050 - 26,000 direct jobs by 2020 - as well as 10% -15% of EU power demand by 2050 (100GW).

Thomas, who secured the support of all five political groups in the EU CoR before publishing the paper, is clear - ocean energy has great potential for the future of European energy security, as well as being able to reduce EU CO2 emissions by an estimated 2.61m tonnes by 2020 and 136.3m tonnes by 2050.

"At the industry's current progress, the EU could lose its competitive advantage in this pioneering sector."

But at the industry's current progress, the EU could lose its competitive advantage in this pioneering sector and be overtaken by countries such as Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan and Korea, which are all gaining momentum in the sector with a number of projects and technologies in the pipeline.

There are over 500 companies currently active in the European ocean power sector, and over 50% of global tidal energy activity is based in Europe.

The Tidal Lagoon in Swansea, for example, is set to be the world's first man-made, energy-generating lagoon with a 320MW installed capacity and 14 hours of reliable generation every day. The lagoon, anticipated to be online by 2019, will be a reference for future investments in tidal range projects.

Although the technology is understood, the project currently faces challenges due to the high upfront capital required, along with a number of consenting issues.

The challenges faced by Tidal Lagoon are representative of just some of the hurdles currently faced by the ocean power industry, and why, as yet, the sector broadly remains at a research and development phase. So what can EU leaders and industry do now to push ocean power past the finish line?

Overcoming age-old challenges

The barriers to ocean energy highlighted in Thomas's paper can be broken down to five categories: technological, financial, administrative / governance-related, grid-related issues, and environmental impact.

In particular, many of these issues are further hampered by the fact that ocean power involves working offshore in typically challenging and hostile environments, such as the Atlantic Ocean. Carrying out scientific research and testing can often be particularly unpredictable in such challenging environments and this can act as a barrier to large-scale investment, especially for private investors who generally require proof of concept and scalability of technology before committing capital.

"The banking system is not ready to take risks and there is a lack of risk sharing financial instruments," says Thomas. "Industry will have to work with insurers to develop ad-hoc products that could bridge the financing gap and overcome the reluctance of commercial banking in investing in ocean energy technologies."

Working offshore can also complicate licensing and permits procedures, which can be "extremely time-consuming and expensive for developers", says Thomas.

"National and public authorities should help in mapping of the ocean and sites where tests and projects can be carried out to minimise impact on the environment and reduce burden on developers," he adds.

One need only look at the offshore oil and gas industry and offshore wind farm development to know that such issues can be overcome with government support and appropriate financing.

"We must recognise that ocean energy is not really competing on a level playing field, when it comes to looking at full costs of other energy sources i.e. when we add in the social and environmental costs in terms of impact on climate change and pollution," adds Thomas.

"This is particularly striking in the case of the nuclear sector where the legacy of nuclear waste disposal lasts for thousands of years."

Pick up the pace

Minestro managing director Anders Janssen believes that for the industry to flourish in the manner of wind or solar power "the EU and member states must ensure continued support in the form of capital and increased political support and to ensure that there is a long-term view" to shore up investor confidence.

Certain governments and organisations within the EU are already providing some support to the industry. In 2014, an Ocean Energy Forum, under the Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, was established to gather the sector's stakeholders in a series of workshops. Next year the forum is due to adopt a final roadmap aimed at accelerating the commercialisation of ocean power technologies, while also addressing the main barriers.

The European Investment Bank (EIB) introduced the InnovFin Energy Demonstration Project in June, which enables the EIB to finance innovative first-of-a-kind demonstration projects in the field of renewable energy and hydrogen / fuel cells up to the sum of €75m.

Ocean energy has also been identified as one of the objectives of the EU Blue Growth strategy and it features in the European Commission's recently published Strategic Energy Technology (SET), plan which identifies the main innovative low-carbon technologies needed to achieve the transition to a more sustainable economy. Thomas says he is calling for an Ocean Energy Industrial Platform to be set-up out of this initiative.

"There is also a need to provide stable regulatory frameworks and cost-effective subsidy schemes."

Some member states, especially those with Atlantic coastlines, have put ocean energy in their renewable energy plans and the Welsh Government has earmarked €100m from its Structural Funds programmes to support marine energy through two designated marine energy development zones.

Most of this, Thomas says, is being driven at the EU sub-Member State level such as Cornwall, Brittany, Aquitaine, Pays de la Loire, Basse Normandie, the Basque Country, Cantabria, Galicia, Scotland, Wales, Flanders and Region Västra Götaland.

"We have seen an increasing priority in EU funding programmes to ocean energy, particularly around research and development," says Thomas. "This is to be welcomed, although many more resources need to be made available, including through the EIB; it needs to come up with new and innovative financing initiatives to de-risk the early-stage investments. There is a clear rationale here for public / private partnerships to help do this.

"There is also a need to provide stable regulatory frameworks and cost-effective subsidy schemes for renewable energy sources to attract investors with long-term plans. This is happening in some Member States, notably Ireland and Portugal, however, others are lagging behind."

Thomas is calling for a Macro Region to be considered for the Atlantic Ocean area, focused solely on ocean energy.

The next renewable industry

"I think that the tidal sector will be about 15 years after wind power, but it will be the fastest growing sector in renewable energy," says Janssen. "My view is that the industry will be fully commercial between 2023 and 2025."

Thomas says the wave energy sector is slightly further off this and could look to commercialise in 20 - 30 years.

There is hope that the Paris Climate Change Conference could also bolster governmental - both European and international - support for ocean energy, something that Janssen hopes will happen.

"One has to think that solar and wind power were at the same stage as ocean energy decades ago but they were supported properly and now they can compete and are part of energy mix," says Thomas.

"We have to do the same with ocean energy, looking beyond the current dire economic situation."
"If anything," Thomas adds, "large-scale ocean power faces none of the issues that have plagued wind and solar - intermittency and public resistance - because it is a clean, renewable, highly reliable and predictable source of energy, with much less scope for 'nimbyism' with regard to the visual impact on the natural environment."