The oceans contain the largest untapped source of renewable energy, with offshore areas harbouring around 80% of the earth’s wind resources. Capturing this energy could enhance economically sustainable long-term development and play a pivotal role in the world’s emerging blue economy. Harnessing marine renewable energy to its full potential is also crucial in the transition toward climate neutrality.
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Marine renewable energy
Marine renewable energy has the potential to reduce global carbon emissions from fossil fuels by 500 million tons by 2050.Harnessing this energy can significantly contribute to the future and sustainability of the blue economy by offering sustainable and clean sources of energy. Particularly in the context of increasing global energy demand and in fighting climate change, requiring a global energy transition and decarbonization to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Yago Sierras mentioned “Renewable marine energy is the most valuable player in the future of the blue economy. Harnessing just a fraction of the ocean’s energy could power a lot of our needs. The opportunities are massive, as these technologies are developing and getting better and more affordable.”
Moreover, marine renewable energy has the capacity to fulfil the energy needs of remote communities, which may lack access to reliable electricity sources. They can also support and drive other energy intensive sectors of the blue economy, such as aquaculture, shipping, or desalination. In addition, they create industrial and economic opportunities through job creation, innovation, or research.
A wide range of energy generating ocean technologies have been developed in the last few years. Depending on the source of energy they are using, they can be divided into four main categories: Tidal energy, Wave energy, Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) and Salinity Gradient technologies. Other marine renewable energies, which don’t extract energy from the ocean itself, such as offshore solar energy and offshore wind have also grown in interest and in significance. Raffaele Mancini, a Blue Economy Expert, stated “Off-shore winds and wave energy are great opportunities to harness oceans’ energy potential. Offshore wind energy already competes with existing fossil fuel-based technologies, and sometimes it is even less expensive. European industries lead in developing offshore wind, wave, and tidal, as well as floating photovoltaic systems.”
Indeed, Europe is at the forefront in terms of offshore renewable energy, driven by its pledge to the European Green Deal and the objectives outlined in the Paris Agreement. Through public investment, the EU have been assisting companies, positioning itself as a global leader in the sector with a contribution of 46% to worldwide public investments in the last decade. Wave energy and tidal stream energy lead deployments, technological advancements and potential, with a 33% surge in electricity generation from these sources occurring between 2019 and 2020. Sweden particularly has emerged as a notable player in marine renewable energy, ranking among the top countries in Europe in terms of R&D investments, venture capital investments, and the number of high value inventions.
While Europe has the largest marine energy market share, North America and Asia Pacific are next, with Latin America and Middle East and Africa last. All regions have huge potential for ocean energy, especially wind and tidal. In the United States, the combined energy potential available from marine sources across all 50 states is estimated to be equivalent to 57% of the total electricity generated by those states in 2019.
Collaboration, through knowledge sharing to promote research, development, and commercialization of energy technologies, is essential and widespread in this sector. As an illustration, a group of Ocean Energy Systems member countries, including Japan, India, China, Korea, Singapore, France and the USA, have collaborated on studying the global potential of Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) and assess the current state and procedures for its execution. KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden, and Ghent University, Belgium, have also launched a collaboration within marine tribology aimed to establish an international platform in this field, which includes wave energy developers.
Challenges in leveraging marine energy
Despite the important potential for leveraging ocean energy around the world, the challenges in efficiently harnessing it are widespread. David Lunsford, the CEO of Stream Ocean, told us “As we explore various offshore energies, understanding their impacts is crucial. While blue tech energy holds promise, we must balance it with environmental responsibility, transitioning from damaging habitats on land to a nature-positive approach. To achieve this, we advocate for stricter environmental assessments and increased monitoring frequency in ocean industries.”
Moreover, as an emergent technology with underdeveloped supply chains, ocean energy technologies usually involve higher expenses compared to other renewable energy technologies, mainly due to their high installation, operation, and maintenance costs, and projects remain small-scaled. Furthermore, technical and engineering characteristics, including the crafting of proficient energy capture devices, wave and tidal resource assessment, and grid integration, entail substantial research and innovation to be developed for commercial use. Low private investment also results from uncertainty due to very low or no short-term returns.
Josh Neese, Founder of the Florida Oyster Trading Company, said “There’s a lot of opportunity for various types of energy. However, these opportunities cannot be leveraged if major players handle it alone, it’s a collaborative effort. Moreover, there is often a disconnect between innovations and the needs of the industry. Industry needs to be involved to address its own needs. Another limit to implementing is financing; many investors require to see success in an R&D procedure or infrastructure before allocating budget towards it.”
Finally, the ocean’s energy potential is limitless, but the real challenge lies in creating robust technologies that can withstand the ocean’s extreme environments, while ensuring a distribution of energy at affordable prices.
Europe’s significant success in the marine energy industry is due to several key factors. First, it benefits from a favorable policy environment with solid government support, subsidies, incentives, and regulatory frameworks designed to foster the development and implementation of marine energy initiatives. The region has also established the essential infrastructure to seize favorable oceanic conditions for a range of marine energy technologies, such as wave and tidal energy. Moreover, Europe has strong network of research institutions and industry players, promoting technological innovation and project implementation.
Collaborative initiatives and international partnerships also play a crucial role in driving the expansion of the marine energy sector. As sustained research and development investments promotes technology progress and economies of scale are accomplished, the cost-effectiveness of marine energy projects is expected to improve. Though Europe still has barriers to overcome, it serves as an example for all other continents who are rapidly catching up. Ingrid van Wees, Independent Senior Advisor for innovative blue finance, told us “A conducive business environment that ignites a continuous cycle of improvement can foster the innovation and investment required to meet policy requirements that reflect the latest science on sustainable marine practices.” Moreover, as pointed out by Pierre Erwes, a Partner at the Blue Forward Fund, “We must deploy the technology where it is most needed, adapting to the context, local conditions and technology. For an impact investor, navigating the dynamic environment involves co-investment, cooperation, embracing innovative deployment, and tearing down silos for impactful sector development. Navigating regulatory barriers, rethinking future models, and transforming industries is also necessary for a sustainable future.”
In conclusion, with the pressing need to transition towards a sustainable future, marine energy offers innovative solutions and a vast potential to meet the growing demand for clean and renewable energy sources. Leveraging the power of the ocean and overcoming the barriers to fully harnessing its potential will be crucial in meeting our energy needs while conserving our planet. The recent progress observed, especially in Europe, serve as a promising indication of the momentum building in this sector.