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How a British storm proves the power of tidal and wave energy
Wind turbines spin so fast that they fulfill over half of U.K.'s electricity needs.
(A native of England, Matthew Diebel is a veteran journalist who has worked at NBC News, Time, USA Today and News Corp., among other organizations. Having spent his childhood next to one of the world's fastest bodies of water, he is particularly interested in tidal energy.)
Two stories we noticed over the weekend got us to thinking (again) about the big conundrum facing wind power and solar, today’s fastest-growing renewable energy resources. And one of its probable solutions.
The first was news, from The Guardian, that a large storm, name of Malik and with gusts of up to 100 mph, enabled the U.K. to generate more than 19,500 MW of electricity, more than half of its energy needs.
Great, you might think, until you remember that normal conditions do not produce nearly as much energy. The same applies to solar, especially in Britain, which is famous for its changeable weather. And it is this unpredictability that has power companies and governments across the world scrambling for solutions, such as spending huge amounts on grid infrastructure and backup plans such as battery storage.
The second story came from the U.S., where the Department of Energy announced $25 million in funding for eight projects focused on wave power. The research will make up the first round of open-water testing at PacWave South, a facility to be placed off the coast of Oregon and operational next year, the DOE said in a news release.
Unlike wind and the sun, waves never cease. The same is true of tides, seemingly making both the perfect renewable resource.
The numbers in both sectors, though, are shockingly low. For instance, in Europe, which has made leaps and bounds recently in offshore wind power, figures from industry association Ocean Energy Europe show that only 260 KW of tidal capacity and 200 KW of wave energy generation was added in Europe during 2020 (2021 figures are not yet available). Meanwhile, 14.7 GW of wind energy capacity was installed in the same period, according to industry body WindEurope.
Why the difference? It’s all about how rugged the technology has to be. While wind towers, especially those offshore, have to be tough, turbines for wave and tidal power have to cope with the oceans’ unrelenting natural forces, particularly corrosion. Wave energy is usually captured by floating platforms, while tidal uses both undersea turbines — similar in shape to the ones used to capture wind energy — and floating devices.
These factors, of course, increase expense, which has led to investment hesitancy, something the DOE testing hopes to prove should not be a barrier to entry (as well as provide a testbed for improvements and cost-cutting).
In the end, though, energy from oceans could save the world. It may be time to jump in.