Tidal Stream Energy is essential for the UK to meet net-zero goals

By Gordon McIntosh, AREG director, chairman and director, Aberdeen International Associates and chairman, QED Naval

The UK is the world leader in tidal stream energy development with 10MW of installed energy, which is half of all installed capacity globally in 2023 according to a London School of Economics report. And despite being ranked the fifth most specialised tidal technology developer in the world, based on patenting activity, we risk losing out to other countries if we don’t see more focused investment.

Following the disappointing result for offshore wind in last year’s Contracts for Difference (CfD) Allocation Round (AR5), with no bids submitted, little has been said about the unexpected positive result for the tidal stream industry. It won over double the expected capacity with 53MW allocated to 11 projects in Wales and Scotland.

The CfD result was largely due to there being no offshore wind projects, which meant tidal stream projects mopped up £18m extra funding on top of the AR5 ringfenced allocation of £10m. The money would have gone to the lowest-cost technology if there had been any bids i.e., floating offshore wind.

Although a positive result for the tidal stream industry, it shouldn’t be second best to offshore wind for budget allocation. Both technologies need investment if we are to reach net zero by 2050 in the UK and 2045 in Scotland.

We must focus on tidal stream energy, alongside offshore wind, and other sources of renewable power, which are all needed to decarbonise our energy system and require investment to be nurtured and grow. According to the Office for National Statistics electricity generation from offshore wind increased by 715% between 2009 and 2020, which was undoubtedly due to government support in the early days of its development. With the potential to follow a similar path, the tidal stream industry requires similar investment.

Tidal stream energy is produced by using technology to capture kinetic energy from fast-flowing water driven by predictable tidal currents, which are created by the constantly changing gravitational pull of the moon and sun on the world’s oceans. This predictability makes tidal energy an extremely valuable resource to the UK for energy supply and export.

It is available in abundance here with tidal stream resources largest in areas where the speed of the currents is amplified by the funneling of the local coastline and seabed, for example, in narrow straits and inlets, around headlands, and in channels between islands such as Orkney, Shetland, and the Channel Islands as well as Anglesey in North Wales and the Inner Hebrides around Islay and Jura.

Tidal stream energy could meet 11% of the UK’s current annual electricity demand according to a study led by Plymouth University. With wind only available 60% of the time, we need other sources of power to develop a sustainable future energy mix and fill gaps.

Although lagging behind the wind industry with more costly and less mature technology, tidal stream energy is a growing renewable resource with the potential to contribute to long-term economic growth in the UK, supporting net zero goals, and improving energy security. ORE Catapult estimated that 14,500 new jobs could be created by the tidal stream industry by 2040.

We are in a position to be a first mover in tidal stream energy with some of the best tidal stream resources in the world, and innovative technologies. According to ORE Catapult, this includes 22 active technology developers such as Nova Innovation, Orbital Marine, HydroWing, and QED Naval, the company I am chairman of.

The supply chain is very important. We can do most of the production and manufacturing of the technology to produce tidal stream energy in the UK, and this would be exportable, especially to diesel-dependent economies. We are already seeing companies such as Nova Innovation exporting tidal technologies to Canada.

There is a strong research base here to further develop the technology and Oxford University recently announced it will lead an ambitious £7m project to help deliver scalable, affordable, and sustainable tidal stream energy, alongside Edinburgh and Strathclyde universities.

The European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), has played a huge role in the development of tidal stream technologies as the world’s first and leading facility for demonstrating and testing wave and tidal energy converters.

Cross-border projects such as the €48.4m Tidal Stream Industry Energiser (TIGER) have been building partnerships to develop new technologies, test and demonstrate them around the Channel region, to make a stronger, cost-effective case for tidal energy as part of the France/UK energy mix.

With 71% of the earth’s surface covered by the ocean, it’s hardly surprising that the UK is among several countries with high hopes for tidal stream energy. Canada, France China, Japan, and the US are all considering the potential for tidal stream as a low-carbon source of power.

To ensure we do not let this opportunity slip away investment is needed now to advance innovation, drive down costs, and develop the UK supply chain so that we do not miss out like we did with offshore wind.

AREG supports all forms of renewable energy and technologies to reduce emissions and helps its members take advantage of renewable energy opportunities.   To stay up to date with AREG events and find out more about membership, contact [email protected]

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