If there is one certainty in today’s changeable world, it is that tides will rise and fall. You only need to gaze towards the ocean to be reminded of the power of the seas, the backdrop for an abundance of stories, both fact and fiction.

Southeast Asia is blessed with ocean space, largely comprising islands or ocean-bound states – known either as Mainland or Maritime Southeast Asia – in the Indian and Pacific oceans. The region is increasingly interesting to academics, who consider how renewable power techniques and technologies can be utilised for the more than 660 million people living there. Among them are ocean thermal energy, salinity gradient technologies, wave and tidal power generation, collectively known as ocean renewable energy (ORE).

“Oceans contain vast renewable energy potential”, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), “theoretically equivalent to more than double the world’s current electricity demand.” In a 2020 report, “Innovation Outlook: Ocean Energy Technologies”, it concluded ocean energy could provide “affordable, reliable electricity” for small island developing states, as well as “boosting potable water supplies via seawater desalination”; arguably highly attractive to Southeast Asia given its geographical make-up.

Additionally the report said exploitation would create jobs, improves livelihoods and provide other socio-economic benefits whilst delivering “predictability” in energy supply.

More than a drop in the ocean

However, of all the renewable power generation sources, ocean-based energy is arguably the least advanced, with technologies largely not commercially available today, at least not on an industrial scale. In a late 2021 market report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said globally policies promoting research and development are needed to achieve further cost reductions and large-scale development.

The IEA said: “Electricity generation from marine technologies increased an estimated 33% in 2020, mainly owing to Denmark’s capacity increase of 200 MW. However, marine power’s status remains ‘not on track’ because it is far from being aligned with the Net Zero Scenario’s sustained annual growth of 33% through 2030, which is not expected to be achieved in the years ahead.”

IRENA adds that barriers to the technology’s development remain, and include the technology itself, infrastructure, and financial and regulatory concerns. Among the infrastructure challenges is the lack of grid connectivity, leading to significantly increased costs. It adds: “Grids in ocean energy markets can be small and unstable, especially in islands or sparsely populated coastal areas.”

However, globally some countries are managing to address many of these concerns, at least enough to make a success of some projects. IRENA said its 2020 analysis found the largest concentration of ocean energy technologies were being developed in 31 countries, with a large concentration in Europe. Accounting for 98% of the total installed ocean energy capacity globally, the main markets were South Korea, France and Canada. “These countries hold the largest number of projects tested, deployed and planned, as well as the most project developers and device manufacturers,” it said.

Based on IRENA’s analysis, the global cumulative resource potential ranges from 45,000TWh to well above 130,000 annually. “Therefore, ocean energy alone has the potential to meet more than twice the current global electricity demand,” it said. Tidal energy technologies represent “the majority of the global installed ocean energy capacity”, with around 512MW, of which 501.5MW is operational tidal barrage plants.

Supply and demand, demand, demand

Like a growing list of nations around the world, many within The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have committed to reducing their carbon emissions; however, they face challenges unique to their geographies, economies and even socio-political will. By the middle of this decade ASEAN aims to meet 23% of its primary energy demands via renewable sources, an ambition it is well on the way to achieving. But demand is outpacing supply and looks set to do so for the foreseeable future.

In a report published by the IEA as early as 2019, it was concluded energy demand across the region had increased by more than 80% from where it was two decades prior, making the need to find alternative sources of energy even more critical. IRENA, though, says that countries in Asia and south-east Asia do have tidal power potential, but it has not yet been fully harnessed and leveraged. 

The environment – figuratively speaking – is not yet matured enough. “There is a lack of ocean energy networks and umbrella organisations that have the resources and experience in developing ocean energy regulatory frameworks and discussing potential policies with authorities,” IRENA said in 2020. “In addition, there is often a lack of clarity and information on the permitting process. Strategic government plans and policy mechanisms are further lacking to enhance the grid, obtain investments, support revenue streams and conduct marine spatial planning due to the novelty of these technologies.”

Yet the circumstances may be changing – both in Southeast Asia and around the world – as countries look to enhance their sustainable energy portfolios as the impact of climate change and growing energy insecurity become ever more apparent. ASEAN members, particularly Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines, are taking a much more considered approach to green energy than ever before. All are positively encouraging project investments – both technological and infrastructure – by introducing new laws, funding and other financial incentives and the creation of attractive foreign investment environments to promote investment.

Southeast Asia could lead the world in tidal power

As part of that push to attract international partners, in August 2022 the Philippines Department of Energy opened the door to new renewable energy projects with 100% foreign investment, something that was initially prohibited by its 1987 Constitution. Speaking at a committee meeting, Energy Secretary Raphael Lotilla said the country needed to move towards indigenous sources of power to secure energy and not be at the mercy of volatile markets.

“We need to address the industry’s needs and, definitely, one way of doing that is to open up renewable energy,” he said. “We must end this overdependence on petroleum and petroleum-based fuels because otherwise we’ll always experience volatility in prices. We would have to invest in solar, wind and even newer technologies.” He added that in the longer-term, ocean, thermal, hydrogen and offshore wind would be the goal; but accepted that regulatory reform is needed and that tidal was still relatively costly.

The Philippines isn’t alone in Asia with its renewable, and tidal, power ambitions. Indonesia is actively pursuing marine energy as part of its longer-term renewable ambitions. Marine renewables are recognised as part of the country’s renewable energy development plan, making funding available for pilot testing in preparation for full-scale commercialisation.

Southeast Asia is big on energy transition, and tidal power may have a role to play. Currently, the region is largely reliant on fossil fuels and as such exposed to the vagaries of this increasingly unpredictable market. Renewables are a huge part of the answer, and the region knows it; but it’s difficult to get a clear picture of where it is in renewable power. It’s among the top renewable generators in the world when breaking the market down into subcategories – such as geothermal and to a degree solar – but it lags significantly behind in many others.

However, given the undeveloped nature of the marine, specifically tidal, renewable energy, the region has the potential to be a global powerhouse. To do so it needs to ensure it’s geared to attracting foreign interest – bringing with it technical expertise and funding. If it can do that, Southeast Asia could be sailing the high seas in a new age of renewable power.