Seizing sea power: The state of UK tidal energy and its development
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The state of UK tidal energy

By Yoana Cholteeva 21 Sep 2021

Despite tidal’s growing popularity across the world, the UK Government is still hesitant as to whether to help encourage the renewable source. What stands in the way of its wider adoption?

The state of UK tidal energy
The Scottish devolved government has trialled several tidal projects, with little success. Credit: Scottish Government/Chris Watt.

As the UK is responsible for generating 50% of Europe’s tidal energy capacity, the sector is still experiencing challenges associated with lack of capital and incentives. Despite tidal’s growing popularity across the world, the UK Government is still hesitant as to whether to help encourage the renewable source. What stands in the way of its wider adoption?

While Britain is looking to stay on top of the energy transition and optimise the processes that will help it transition quickly and efficiently, the option of further harnessing the country’s tidal potential is still yet to be decided on.

While the Dutch Government, along with the Dutch Green Energy Council, is leaning towards wholly supporting tidal energy in the country, some nations are undecided about backing up the development of tidal.

According to estimates from the UK’s tidal energy movement, the country has the potential to bag £76bn of the future tidal market, while helping to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions by 2050 and creating around 23,500 new jobs by 2050.

The government has already undertaken a few reviews into the potential of tidal energy. When examining the possibility of a tidal lagoon fleet in 2017, it dismissed the opportunity because tidal capital cost per unit of annual power output was higher than other energy sources.

However, the industry is hopeful that with the mounting need for further decarbonisation of the energy industry, the UK will revisit its tidal energy potential.

The tidal technical capabilities in the UK

Looking into the underlying reasons that have already made the UK one of the most notable producers of tidal energy, they come down to firstly, technological advancement and secondly, natural predisposition of the area.

“The UK is really leading the sector with its technical capabilities and what universities are doing. So, we have got the companies here, the technology-readiness levels are here, and the skills and expertise are totally here in the UK,” Keith Murray, chief commercial officer at renewable resources company QED Naval, says.

And then there is the geographical location of the country to thank as well. Unsurprisingly, when observing some of the top industry locations and their communities, they are often situated around large rivers, sea locations, and channels between two land masses.

The UK established the Renewables Obligation scheme to support the emerging renewables industries in 2002, the government indicating that a few tidal energy projects installed before 2017 were eligible for five Renewable Obligation Certificates and aid. Such forms of incentives are indeed pivotal in attracting necessary private investments to guarantee that the UK secures its position as a global leader in the tidal energy sector.

Despite significant headway in harnessing the power of tides, such ocean-energy device costs remain extremely high because of the lack of benefits of manufacturing them at scale. The process of designing, constructing, and testing tidal energy devices in laboratories, then turning them into prototypes to be tested in actual ocean waters, is also time and capital consuming without a significant amount of dedicated support and funding.

Currently, the majority of global tidal funding is coming from governments because private companies do not necessarily trust the chance of getting a strong return on their investment. Until this changes, tidal energy might not be able to become a competitive part of the renewable energy mix.

Obstacles ahead for tidal development

When it comes to the challenges associated with tidal energy, one of the most common considerations for operators in the industry is the prospect of such technologies contributing to environmental disruption by harming marine species and their habitats.

The prospect of placing large mechanical devices into an active ocean ecosystem might be problematic, as spinning blades may injure or kill aquatic species or a coastal barrage for tidal energy could add the possibility of upsetting an entire estuarial ecosystem.

To help minimise such unwanted effects, engineers can work to tweak their designs in an attempt to minimise environmental damage, while studying the impact of hydropower technologies.

Also, in order to support and assist with such efforts, the Technical University of Munich has teamed up with industrial partners for FIThydro, the Europe-wide project that was established in 2016 to provide practical solutions and information for energy operators in order to help them improve hydropower technologies in a fish-friendly way.

While the obstacles of investment and environmental impact need to be evaluated and measured, a prevalent lack of commitment to tidal might also contribute to a decline in the UK tidal sector. For example, a lack of a solid supply chain in the country could drive tidal technology experts and operators to move their capabilities to other countries that are already embracing this renewable option. 

“We’ve got the turbines that have been operating for over 10 years, by companies like ourselves. So, the technology is there. It’s really like pieces of a jigsaw, a big expensive jigsaw, that’s why we need government support,” Murray says.

Changing regulations to encourage development

Regulating any new energy field is no mean feat either, but the industry seems confident that similar to the rise of other renewables, the establishment of a solid tidal industry is a learning curve with reasonable objectives. 

“There definitely must be regulation, but a lot of that’s in place already, learning from oil and gas with health safety, and also from wind and other sectors. We’re not doing anything new. And that’s one thing we really must remember that a lot has already been established,” Murray says.

Another point to regulating the budding sector is the need to create uniform guidelines to the sectors across the UK’s four nations because varying regulations of tidal across the countries can impede optimal collaborations and create division in the opportunities for development.

“We need to get alignment between them because each [country] has got its own marine energy councils and operate slightly differently, and that’s just because there’s no overall set particularly from the central government.

“So, we need that in place. And I think what will happen is, presuming the country realises that as a maritime nation it wants to invest in this new sector, it wants to take a lead, it needs to bet in the supply chain and manufacturing,” Murray adds.