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The Cinderella of the renewable energy sector

Author : Alan Franck, Editor, Hazardex

09 August 2018

Just a few weeks after the UK government rejected plans for a £1.3bn tidal lagoon in Swansea Bay, the French leader in tidal power, Naval Energies, also announced it was pulling out of the sector. The company was one of the few to have developed tidal turbine energy technology to the industrial launch stage. On 24 July, the company deployed a new 2MW tidal turbine in the Bay of Fundy in Canada. 

Artist's impression of a proposed Naval Energies project off the French coast
Artist's impression of a proposed Naval Energies project off the French coast

Less than a week later, however, Naval Energies said it had decided to stop investing in tidal turbines and instead would now concentrate its efforts on floating wind turbines and Marine Thermal Energy Conversion.

The market for tidal-turbine energy was closing, it said, with an unclear route to market for the projects and products it had spent hundreds of millions of euros developing.

Indeed, despite offering some continued subsidy for developments in this field, the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME) only foresees 100 to 150MW to be installed between now and 2028, i.e. 50 turbines of 2MW each over ten years.

The UK also decided two years ago not to launch specific tenders, and tidal now has to compete with more mature fixed bottom offshore wind. In Canada, there is also great sensitivity to the cost of the technology.

In the UK, research into the sector goes back to Salter’s Duck in the 1970s, which after showing initial promise, was abandoned a decade later. Similar initiatives in other European countries over the last few decades have also come to very little.

There are still a number of tidal energy technologies being tested using turbines, kites, paddles, oscillating wave converters and much else, but the difficulty of converting this technology into products that can provide electricity on an economic basis continues to bedevil the industry.

And this at a time when the cost of offshore wind power has fallen to a level where, in some places, it is now competitive with onshore fossil fuel generation.

“While offshore wind in Europe has clearly come of age, ocean energy is still learning how to take the first steps,” EU environment commissioner Karmenu Vella said.

Proponents of this technology point out that tidal generation provides power on a consistent basis as the tide will always come in and go out, unlike wind, which is an often fickle energy source.

But unless there is a significant technological breakthrough, it seems tidal energy will continue to be the Cinderella of renewable energy, ever waiting to be invited to the ball.

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