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Ocean Power: Renewable Energy Orphan?

wave and tidal power Tapping the oceans to generate electricity continues to be something of an orphan in the renewable energy space, at least when it comes to garnering the attention of and investment from the federal government and the professional investment community.

Considering that marine renewable power has the potential to meet as much as 10% of national electricity demand, one has to wonder why, especially given the rapid pace which the US wind power industry has developed.

The same concepts and similar turbine designs have been developed to tap into and harness wave and tidal energy as they have for wind, for instance. Add to that the fact that waves and tides contain more potential energy, are typically more constant, and that marine turbines can capture energy more efficiently–due to water’s greater density as well as the fact that tides ebb and flow, and you have to wonder why renewable ocean power isn’t getting more respect.

Can’t Get No Respect

The Obama administration, with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at the point, have come out and are working towards reorienting offshore energy resource management and policy by doing more to promote and foster marine renewables. It seems the focus is on offshore wind as opposed to ocean-derived power, however.

The Administration is pushing for significant increases in wind, solar, and now even geothermal power–all good things if you believe there are social and economic benefits to diversifying the nation’s energy base and relying more on cleaner, renewable forms of energy.

The Administration in its budget has proposed scaling back wave and tidal power R&D 25% from $40 million to $30 million. By way of contrast, the White House is seeking an 82% increase in solar power R&D funding, a 36% increase in wind power R&D funding, and a 14% increase in geothermal funding, according to a McClatchy Newspapers report by Les Blumenthal.

Marine & Hydrokinetic Poised for Growth Nonetheless

Marine and hydrokinetic technologies and power systems are poised for a sharp growth spurt in the next five years despite their relative orphan status, however, according to Boulder, Colorado-based Pike Research.

Taken collectively, the five main types of marine and hydrokinetic power technologies–ocean wave, tidal stream, river hydrokinetic, ocean current and ocean thermal–could grow to supply as much as 10 or even 15 percent of electrical power globally by 2030, according to a Pike research report released June 1.

Pike puts the U.K., the U.S. and Canada in the lead when it comes to developing marine and hydrokinetic power systems. Considering there aren’t any large-scale projects in active development here in the States, that isn’t saying much, at least at present.

There’s a lot more going on across the Atlantic. The UK and Scottish governments in particular have been especially keen to develop, test and prove marine renewable technology. Marine Current Turbines is just one of a small group of UK-based companies aiming to scale up and prove its technology. Its SeaGen tidal turbine near the mouth of Northern Ireland’s Strangford Lough is operating at full capacity and generating 1.2MW of electricity, the first time electricity has been generated from tides on such a scale, the BBC reported in December.

What’s even better, the company’s engineers have been gradually moving towards full operating mode, which means the turbines will be generating electricity as much as 22 hours a day. That’s power enough to supply electricity to meet the average needs of 1000 homes, according to the company. The power is being purchased and connected into the grid operated by Northern Ireland utility ESB Independent.

Senate Ocean Energy Bill Still Pending

All is not decided in the US Congress when it comes to spurring development of ocean renewables, however. Republican senator from Alaska Lisa Murkowski and Washington state House Democrat Jay Inslee introduced companion bills that would authorize as much as $250 million a year to promote ocean research. Okay, that pales what the coal and oil industry bigshots are going to get out of the proposed American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, but at least it’s a pretty good-sized bit of moolah.

Murkowski and Inslee’s “Marine Renewable Energy Promotion Act of 2009” would expand federal research into marine energy, take over the cost verification of new wave, current, tidal and thermal ocean energy devices, create an adaptive management fund to help pay for the demonstration and deployment of such electric projects and enable marine project developers to accelerate depreciation of project costs over five years, in line with other types of renewable energy projects, according to a Sustainable Business news report.

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