Throughout the history of humanity, the allure of the ocean has remained a constant. Ancient civilizations based stories and deities around the vast ocean, and now modern scientists spend their entire careers trying to unlock the many questions that still remain. In some parts of the world, these scientists are looking to use what knowledge they do have to harvest the ocean's energy for the sake of curbing climate change. This is where the advancement of the United Kingdom comes in.
Within the past decade, the United Kingdom has become notorious for its innovation and utilization of marine energy. Even just this year, there have been multiple announcements for implementing various types of ocean energy programs. One of which being from Orbital Marine Power, a U.K.-based company with the goal to decarbonize energy.
Earlier this month, the company announced their latest project -what they are calling “the world’s most powerful tidal turbine.” The nearly 250-foot-long tidal turbine, known as the Orbital O2, has launched off the coast of Scotland from the Port of Dundee. The Orbital O2 will make its way to an archipelago nearby - Orkney Islands - where it will begin its working life at the European Marine Energy Center. The turbine will use the strong ocean tides to harvest energy that will power up to 2,000 U.K. homes every year.
This announcement comes just a few weeks after another venture was publicized that would encompass research into the potential of tidal, wave, and floating marine energy. This project was backed by Marine-I and is set to be based on another archipelago off the coast of England, the Isles of Scilly. The outcome from this research is to hopefully gain a better insight into the environmental impacts of marine energy and how effective it can be at helping to reduce the overall dependency on traditional energy.
The concept behind how a tidal turbine works is rather interesting. Think wind turbines, except below the surface.The blades of the turbines are propelled in a cyclical motion due to the flow of the ocean current. This newly harvested energy will then flow toward the attached generator where it will be stored and later distributed to various sources for use.
Various life-cycle assessments (LCA) conducted on the environmental impact of tidal turbines have shown to be quite promising. However, a peer-reviewed study published in 2020 found that based on their reviewed studies, the nuances within marine energy weren’t always taken into consideration, which can pose potential risk and lack of knowledge of the true environmental footprint. This is due to the fact that geographical locations can greatly alter the tidal power and, therefore, the efficiency of the turbine.
The literature suggests that it is highly recommended that organizations or governments looking to implement tidal turbines do separate life-cycle assessments to gauge a better understanding of the true environmental impact within a specific location. In a perfect world, that LCA would then be implemented into an environmental product declaration and released to the public for the sake of transparency.
The benefits to marine energy are rather promising. Even with the aforementioned nuances, they are still far better for the environment than traditional energy. For example, tidal turbines produce more energy than their counterparts, wind turbines, which can be beneficial in highly populated coastal locations where there isn’t enough space for land energy. This is because water is denser than air, allowing for more energy output and, therefore, a higher payoff. The machines also provide little to no noise pollution within the surrounding area, which can be a positive for marine life.
The downside to tidal turbines is the potential collision with marine life into the blades of the turbines. This is also a negative aspect that surrounds wind turbines, but unlike with these, tidal turbines move at a much slower speed which actually lowers the risk of potential collateral damage. It also probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to say that the cost is one of the main reasons that tidal energy has not become more mainstream. This factor is, unfortunately, an obstacle faced by many green energy options. However, as we saw with solar power, a continuous upward trend of implementation will eventually lead to the machines being produced in larger batches which will result in lower production costs.
The United Kingdom is home to large infrastructure zones spread throughout mostly England, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. The emissions that result from the energy needed to power these cities have led to negative environmental impacts. Companies such as Orbital Marine Power and Marine-I recognize these negative impacts and began investing in marine energy to help lower the dependency on traditional energy.
The next decade will be very telling in regard to the outcome of these marine energy implementations. The current literature available today suggests that they have the ability to significantly reduce carbon emissions and therefore help to mitigate the potential damage done due to climate change. The next steps would be for companies within the U.K. to continue taking these leaps and bounds toward marine energy. Advocating for the funding of these projects will help to bring public awareness and the eventual normalization of alternative energy.