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Tidal farms offer a win-win for the planet and the economy

Published 26 July 2021

Imagine a world where every energy need is answered with an entirely green footprint.

Where technology is such that we’re powering every home, business and vehicle from the Earth’s natural resources – sunshine, wind and the water in our rivers and oceans.

While wind power dominates the renewables markets now, tidal stream power is a rapidly advancing form of renewables. Tidal turbines work like wind turbines but extract power from fast-moving water, and the UK is home to the world’s leading developers. Part of our role at ORE Catapult is to test and validate these technologies as a key part of derisking them ahead of commercialisation. Far from still being at the ‘experimental’ stage , tidal devices have reached a high level of sophistication and are ready for full-scale deployment.

Tidal power farms are already supplying homes and businesses in some parts of the UK and the electricity they produce is price competitive with diesel, which is proving a revolution for remote and island communities that often rely upon diesel imports for power. By 2030, tidal energy is on track to be cheaper than nuclear power and fossil fuels (at £90/MWh once we reach 1GW)[1], providing clean and sustainable energy around the world.

What makes the case for tidal stream energy compelling is its predictable nature. Wind and solar power have driven us forward at an incredible pace when it comes to approaching net-zero targets, but they are not entirely predictable. Tidal stream can add much needed predictability within the grid using a purely renewable resource.

The opportunity for the UK to continue to lead this global market is clear too: UK waters hold roughly half of Europe’s tidal stream resource and current tidal technologies from 30 key sites could supply 6GW of power[2] (enough to power almost 5.6 million homes)[3].

Added to this is an explosion of innovation in tidal technologies, with tidal energy sites now fuelling homes along UK coastlines. Developers like Nova Innovation, which built the world’s first grid-connected tidal array in Shetland, have attracted international interest.

In 2014 Nova Innovation started working with ORE Catapult in getting their technology innovation projects into the water. Since then, the company has attracted significant tranches of EU funding, becoming the testbed for collaborative, international research projects like the €20 million EnFAIT (Enabling Future Arrays in Tidal) project funded by the Horizon 2020 programme.

Nova Innovation’s turbines have been powering homes, businesses and the grid in Shetland for over five years. In another world first, achieved this year, they installed a charge point for electric vehicles powered entirely by tidal energy. This track record has won the company contracts to build similar tidal arrays in Canada and Wales.

Nova Innovation’s story shows the global appetite for tidal technologies and cements the UK’s growing reputation as the go-to location for them. Already, 80% of the specialist supply chain supporting tidal stream energy is UK-based[4], largely thanks to developers like Nova Innovation and SIMEC Atlantis, which operates Scotland’s Meygen, the world’s largest tidal energy plant.

While they have demonstrated incredible performance, many tidal developers need to raise the investment needed to enable larger deployment. Without a route to market via the Contracts for Difference (CfD) process or a Feed-in Tariff, there is a barrier to attract the private investment needed to progress larger-scale projects.

That is why tidal developers are actively lobbying for a dedicated pot of money under the CfD scheme to help them accelerate their route to market and attractiveness to investors. Similar government backing is being sought for the next generation of developers, too, with the Marine Energy Council (MEC) asking UK Government for an Innovation Power Purchase Agreement (IPPA) to fund new projects. Under this scheme, a supplier would be entitled to offset the annual difference to market prices against tax, but with risk for non-delivery put onto them, not the taxpayer.

Getting the success stories out there is crucial to getting this vital support. An important piece of the jigsaw is the €45 million EU-funded Tidal Stream Industry Energiser (TIGER) project in the Channel region that is led by ORE Catapult. TIGER is actively supporting the design, consenting or installation of up to 30MW of tidal stream capacity and bringing developers, technologies and experience to the fore across the south coast of England and the north coast of France.

Tidal stream energy has reached the critical development stage where the technology is there, but it needs the final investment pull into a commercial-scale market. With the same policy and funding support that the wind industry enjoyed at its pre-commercial stage, tidal stream offers a compelling prize to the UK. We can lead a formidable future export market and contribute to decarbonising electricity, in line with our net-zero targets.

[1] ORE Catapult, Tidal Stream and Wave Energy Cost Reduction and Industrial Benefit, https://ore.catapult.org.uk/app/uploads/2018/11/Tidal-Stream-and-Wave-Energy-Cost-Reduction-and-Industrial-Benefit.pdf

[2] https://committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/19220/pdf/

[3] Assuming 6GW of tidal at 40% capacity factor and a UK average home requiring 3.7MWh/yr.

[4] Correspondence (parliament.uk)