The US is increasing its bets on tidal power

As part of its grand renewable energy plans to combat climate change, the US government is investing heavily in the future of tidal power. Meanwhile, Europe is also funding the development of tidal power technology to advance the renewable energy sector. This initial period of funding in research and development is expected to contribute to the large-scale deployment of tidal power projects worldwide over the next decade.

Tidal energy is generated in three principal ways. The first are tidal barriers, which use a dam-like structure that juts out into the ocean to create a tidal pool. Sluice gates at the barrage control water levels and flow rates, allowing the area to fill up at high tide and empty into a power turbine system to generate power. The second is tidal turbines, which use blades to turn a rotor that drives a generator. These can be installed on the seabed in strong tidal waters, but this requires extremely high resilience of the equipment. The third is tidal fences, which use vertical axis turbines mounted on a fence or on the sea floor to allow water to flow through turbines and generate electricity.

The US Department of Energy (DoE) said it will allocate $35 million from the bipartisan infrastructure bill for the advancement of tidal and river current power systems. The DoE has identified great potential for the development of tidal and current energy harvesting, which is currently largely underdeveloped. The funding is expected to be released in 2023 and represents the “largest investment in tidal and river power technologies in the United States,” according to the DoE. The government has previously released a letter of intent announcing the new funding opportunity.

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The sector will need more research and development before developing large-scale projects due to underinvestment in the renewable energy source. However, the DoE is optimistic that tides and river currents will provide an excellent source of green energy for the US. The funding is intended to build on the work of existing developments and help bring more projects online.

Awareness of the potential of tidal power development has grown steadily in recent years, with notable projects erected in the US, Canada, UK and India. In July 2021, the world’s ‘most powerful’ tidal turbine was commissioned in UK waters, drawing attention to the sector. This year, a $5.18 million turbine blade test facility opened its doors to advance the development of tidal power technology.

Despite optimism about funding, the DoE has highlighted several challenges that have so far prevented the large-scale deployment of tidal and river current power projects. It states, “The U.S. tidal and river power industry requires long-term and significant funding to transition from individual test equipment to the establishment of a commercial site.” It added, “The complexity of installing equipment and navigating permitting processes involved with a lack of connection to local power grids have proven to be a persistent obstacle to the advancement of tidal and river current energy.”

In addition to the USA, the European Union is also constantly pushing ahead with its tidal power projects. According to Ocean Energy Europe, Europe installed 2.2 MW of tidal power in 2021 compared to 260 kW in 2020. 681 kW of wave power was also installed, a tripling. This was a significant contribution to the 1.38 MW of wave power and 3.12 MW of tidal power installed worldwide. However, that number remains significantly lower than other forms of renewable energy, with Europe installing 17.5 GW of wind power and 25.9 GW of new solar PV capacity in 2021.

This month, Europe announced $19.3 million in funding for major wave energy projects. WEDUSEA, a group of 14 academic and industrial partners supported by Innovate UK and the European Union’s Horizon Europe program and coordinated by OceanEnergy, will lead the project over four years. In the phase, WEDUSEA will focus on the design of the 1 MW OE35 – a device developed by OceanEnergy, which it calls “the world’s largest floating wave energy device”.

The European Marine Energy Center (EMEC) hopes to “create a technology deployment path for a 20 MW pilot farm”. Myles Heward, Project Manager at EMEC, stated: “The innovative actions of this program aim to improve the efficiency, reliability, scalability and sustainability of wave energy technology and reduce the LCOE of the technology by over 30 percent.” He added: “This will help reduce the risk of wave energy investments.”

Substantial funding for research and development of tidal and river current energy technology is expected to lead to the large-scale deployment of several renewable energy projects in both the US and Europe. The initial funding period could provide the answers needed to establish tidal power projects in multiple locations worldwide over the next decade and contribute to a broader transition away from fossil fuels to green energy sources.

By Felicity Bradstock for

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