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19th June 2020

Tapping the seas for power


By Sam Morgan

The energy produced at sea could satisfy most of Europe’s power needs. Although the blue economy has come on in dribs and drabs lately, the coronavirus outbreak risks turning the taps off altogether. For now, at least.

Ocean, tidal, and offshore wind power all have a monumental potential to provide clean energy to our societies, as some studies estimate that there is capacity to generate anything between 100% and 400% of the planet’s power needs.

Obstacles to renewable energy

The prospect of ditching fossil fuels in favour of turbines is a tantalising one but the sector has faced severe obstacles over the years, such as high investment costs, unprofitable energy prices and negative public opinion.

As a result, the power generated by the seas themselves barely registers in the energy mixes of most European countries, while offshore wind has struggled to establish itself as strongly as onshore has managed.

The European Union had planned to debut new rules to help offshore wind later this year but the coronavirus outbreak’s impact on the workflow of its executive branch, the Commission, means there will be a delay.

Details about the strategy are still thin on the ground but it will reportedly suggest legislative tweaks to make it easier for developers to build wind farms. Ideas on the table include relaxed spatial planning rules and stronger incentive schemes.

Delayed by COVID-19

The industry group, WindEurope, is confident that the energy source’s potential will be enough to see it through, estimating that most countries will aim to eventually get around a quarter of their power from offshore.

However, the association’s CEO, Giles Dickson, did concede that “with COVID-19 we are likely to see delays in the development of new wind farm projects which could cause developers to miss the deployment deadlines in countries’ auction systems and face financial penalties.”

Coronavirus delays are not exclusive to the energy sector but blue economy-linked power projects can at least count on long-term strategies drawn up by Europe’s governments for the coming decade.

Climate commitments

The Paris Accord on climate change obligates countries to cut emissions and limit global warming. Part of that process includes meeting stricter green targets in 2030 by switching to renewable energies, one of the main weapons in the environmental arsenal.

Spain was the latest major country to submit its finalised plan and it has received widespread accolades from the ecological community for the scope of its ambition. Solar power capacity is set to quadruple and wind power double over the next ten years.

“Spain has long been a leader in renewables: wind is 20% of their electricity and they create more export revenues from wind energy than from wine,” Giles Dickson said in praise of the government’s plan.

Spain was able to commit to such a green agenda largely because renewable energy prices are falling at a consistent rate. Clean energy is rapidly becoming economically competitive with nuclear, coal and natural gas, a fact that Madrid has recognised.

In its strategy, it also acknowledges the “huge potential” of ocean and tidal technologies but insists they are not at an advanced enough stage to roll out en masse. Specific auctions are suggested as an avenue to build interest and bring demo projects to maturity.

Energy experts have suggested that blue economy energy tech is a perfect fit for outlying communities in Spain - as well as other parts of Europe - which cannot be connected to the Iberian peninsula’s main power grid.

Interest in the clean energy potential of our seas is not an exclusive domain of the environmentally-minded either, as the fossil fuel industry is also making bolder and more effective forays into the sector.

Norwegian gas and oil giant Equinor - formerly Statoil - has made a name for itself in the offshore wind sector by pioneering massive floating turbines, the largest examples of which are taller than Big Ben. Its Hywind wind farm off the coast of Scotland was the world’s first major floating installation and has peaked interest in building turbines in deep water, where conventional technology simply cannot operate.

This is significant for countries like France and those located in the Mediterranean, which has so far been off-limits to wind aficionados.

The French government, in particular, is interested in ramping up its insignificant wind capacity and tagging turbines with tidal power generators where possible. President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to scale back his country’s reliance on nuclear energy and cheap wind is a candidate to fill the gap left by atom-smashing.

Equinor’s floating behemoths are not purely a force for green good though, as the energy major was granted permission earlier in April to build another farm far off the Norwegian coast. But that installation - due to come online in 2022 - will not power Scottish homes, it will fuel Equinor’s fossil fuel exploration efforts.

It is touted as a world’s first and the project’s architects claim it will reduce the firm’s carbon footprint by 200,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. Industry rivals Shell and Total are also forging ahead with their own greening efforts.

Given the volatile nature of oil markets, which have only just been placated by an OPEC agreement on cutting output, fossil fuel producers and other investments see the low return but low-risk nature of offshore as being increasingly attractive.

The virus outbreak’s huge impact on the world economy could end up funnelling more money into mature clean energy sources for that very reason.

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Tapping the seas for power