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How we can make tidal power the UK’s next renewables success story - learn from experts and industry leaders

Photo courtesy of Orbital Marine Power

Dr Stephen Wyatt

Dr Stephen Wyatt | Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult

5 min read Partner content

Amidst a Code Red Climate Emergency and power supply uncertainty, it’s time to support tidal power

Two developments this year have brought home the need to invest in new, additional renewable energy sources. The declaration of Code Red for humanity by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has highlighted the urgency of changing the way we power the world. Meanwhile, a rise in gas prices has underlined the need for a sustainable mix of clean, low carbon, renewable electricity generation to meet our future energy needs.

Tidal stream power is one of a suite of renewable technologies that offer hope in both regards. It works by capturing the energy of fast-moving water through underwater turbines and, because it is based upon the Earth’s tides, it is an entirely predictable power source that can cover dips in the energy supplied by wind and solar.

FIND OUT MORE: Register for The Tidal Power Express and get the background on tidal technologies, companies and economic opportunities for the UK in bite-sized lunchtime webinars. You can also gen up on the UK’s top tidal sites by visiting our interactive map.

With the right funding support, tidal stream power could become a significant provider of clean energy to the UK, as confirmed by a consortium of independent scientists earlier this month. They support our conclusion that the UK’s exploitable tidal power resource is 34TWh/year, equivalent to 11% of the UK’s current annual electricity demand.

The opportunity for the UK economy and coastal communities

The UK is at the forefront of innovation in tidal power. Companies like Scotland’s Nova Innovation, Orbital Marine Power and SIMEC Atlantis have already achieved a series of world-firsts, attracting international interest. These include the first grid-connected tidal array, first tidal-powered electric cars, largest tidal array and the most powerful tidal turbine – all now in operation here in the UK.

In the English Channel region, we are working with the major tidal developers under our Tidal Industry Energiser Project (TIGER), the biggest EU Interreg funded project to date, which aims to build tidal capacity and supply chain.

Providing an energy source that can complement wind, our pioneering companies offer a precious economic opportunity. We estimate that the global ocean energy industry will be worth £76bn by 2050 and could already deliver a net cumulative benefit to the UK of £1.4bn by 2030. Crucially for the levelling-up agenda, 50-60% of that value would be retained in coastal communities alongside the creation of thousands of local jobs.

However, like all new technologies, tidal power does need some ‘Launch Aid’ to support its early deployments and allow it to reach the scale of operation that will make it cost-competitive (we estimate that would be at 1GW of capacity).

One of the biggest hopes for obtaining this crucial support was the UK Government’s Contracts for Difference (CfDs) scheme, allowing low-carbon energy developers to compete for subsidies and offset initially high generation costs. Marine energy developers were looking for their own minima pot dedicated to tidal power (and another form of marine energy - wave power) to create some certainty in their route to market.

Those hopes were dashed by last month’s announcement of the latest CfD allocation (Allocation Round 4). Of the total £55m in Pot 2 for less established technologies, floating wind was provided with a £24m minima or ring-fence, but marine energy developers were told they would have to compete against other emerging technologies for the remaining £31m. With the highest “administrative strike prices”, with no allocated minima or ring-fence, marine energy projects will do well to win any capacity, in competition with the likes of floating wind (which could win capacity over and above the £24m minima) and remote island wind in a “David and Goliath” struggle.

What we need from policymakers

Having worked with tidal developers on numerous innovation and research projects over the years, I have seen them make phenomenal progress, often against strong headwinds, and in doing so gain the UK a reputation as the tidal power pioneer.  We should be proud of this journey, and excited about the opportunity which lies ahead. We should also be prepared to ensure our revenue support mechanism gives the certainty and route to market tidal energy developers so badly need.  Instead, retaining that value in the UK now seems to depend upon finding imaginative ways to gain support.

A proposal from the Marine Energy Council, for example, is for Government to use tax incentives to encourage organisations looking for clean energy Power Purchase Agreement’s to choose marine energy (IPPAs), which would support developers while taking short-term high premiums on strike prices away from consumer bills. This could be effective for some, but rather than having to redesign the subsidy system, these outstanding innovators should really be able to channel all their own energy into technology development in the confidence the market support is there when needed.

There is no doubt that the CfD has been very successful in driving down costs of technologies such as offshore wind, but it should also be acting as an investment in next-generation energy technologies such as tidal power. CfDs are a key final link in the financial support chain to pull through pre-commercial technologies, they should pick up where grant funding begins to taper off, ensuring promising technologies are not left in the doldrums.

Today, the shape of the UK’s future energy mix is still very much emerging, but one thing is clear, we will not regret having a source of national energy that is predictable 100’s of years in advance, which also happens to have a secure UK based supply chain which provides stable energy prices, and job opportunities in our coastal communities for decades to come.   

Dr Stephen Wyatt is Director of Research & Disruptive Innovation at the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult, the UK’s leading technology innovation and research centre for offshore renewables. You can join Stephen and the UK’s leading tidal power companies in our upcoming Tidal Power Express - 30-min virtual events at 13.00 every Wednesday from Nov 24 to Dec 15.

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