Climate change is the biggest global challenge of our generation. Renewable energy is seen as a cornerstone of the future clean energy solution to help tackle this challenge. Tidal energy is an abundant, predictable and clean source of energy. Given the declared climate change “emergency”, why does one of the strongest forces on earth remain largely untapped?

Renewables Success

The advances made by solar and wind, both technically and financially, over the past two decades have been astounding. Both technologies have outperformed even the most optimistic predictions. It is interesting to note that 30 years ago very few people thought wind would ever become mainstream; 20 years ago, competitive solar energy was a pipe dream; and 10 years ago we were only beginning to scratch the surface with offshore wind.

As great as these achievements have been, they all have an Achilles heel – unpredictable intermittency. The sun does not always shine, and the wind does not always blow. The heavily promoted carbon-free solution to this problem has been nuclear energy – carbon free anddteady state. Renewables has never had a strong answer to this until now.

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Energy harvested from tides comes with the bonus of being completely predictable – even years in advance.

Tidal Energy

Enter tidal energy. This force of nature has long been pondered; if only we could harness it. Well, it’s no longer a case of ‘if’: it is already happening with many notable advances in the sector. Nova Innovation has been successfully operating its offshore tidal array (the world’s first) in Shetland for over three years. It is now a question of how quickly tidal energy technology can be rolled out on a global basis. The sun may not always shine, the wind may not always blow, but the tide does always flow and repeats with certainty every six hours.

The tide has the added benefit of being completely predictable – minutes, hours, days and even years in advance. Tidal energy is a truly global opportunity and here in the UK we hold most of the aces: the tidal resource; world leading firms with the technology lead; and supply chain ready to deliver.

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Energy Strategy

So why is this clean predictable source of energy not mainstream across our maritime nation? The answer, in short, is lack of Government support. Wind and solar power (as well as all previous forms of generation) benefited from revenue support mechanisms that enabled the sector to install enough capacity to achieve economies of scale. This enabled costs to be slashed. Onshore wind power is now the cheapest form of electricity you can find. Tidal energy is still relatively expensive compared to wind power but it can already be cost competitive in remote locations or where diesel generation is used.

Costs are coming down, and fast.

However, to become mainstream, some sort of interim support mechanism is required.

At our site in Shetland, Nova has been working with Tesla to produce baseload tidal power for more than a year. Last year, Nova was asked to present on baseload tidal power at the G7 summit in Canada. Speaking directly to the energy ministers of the world’s richest nations, the prospect was laid out: how many of the energy ministers had a nuclear power station application on their desk? If they took the decision to proceed with the nuclear power station application, realistically, they would not get first power until 2032/2035 and each power station would cost billions US$.

For a fraction of the investment in one nuclear power station, how many GWs of baseload tidal power would we be producing by 2030 if it was invested in tidal energy? Most of the ministers immediately realised the significance and within weeks Nova Innovation had high level delegations from Canada and Japan visit our headquarters in Edinburgh.

What about cost? Will tidal energy ever compete economically with offshore wind energy? It doesn’t have to. Tidal energy only needs to compete with technologies that can provide carbonfree, predictable electricity, like nuclear. We deliver the additional baseload value to the energy system beyond other renewables.

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Industrial Strategy

As well as the obvious energy and environmental benefits, there is the big industrial strategy prize for the national economies that drive the tidal energy market. Just look at Denmark, the undisputed champion and victor of the wind industry. To put Denmark’s achievements into perspective and show what is up for grabs, in 2016 the UK Defence sector (one of our best performing) had exports of €7.1billion while the Danish wind sector exported €7.3bn.

Innovative Maritime

Nation Scotland and the UK excel at innovation on the global stage. We are great inventors but often miss out on the commercialisation of that with a lack of the ‘long game’ industrial strategy. Our recent history is littered with great inventions that went overseas to a commercial nirvana. Think jet-engined aircraft, tilting trains, even lithium ion batteries. This maritime nation currently rules the seas in tidal energy, but others have their eyes on the prize.

The question is perhaps not ‘if’, or even ‘when’ but ‘where’ the tidal energy industry happens? Nova is in a strong position to succeed globally – but will it be here, or in Canada, France or Japan where we reap the rewards of tidal energy?

It makes you think. 

Simon Forrest is CEO of Nova Innovation Ltd

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The Herald’s Climate for Change initiative supports efforts being made by the Scottish Government with key organisations and campaign partners. Throughout the year we will provide a forum in The Herald newspaper, online at herald.scotland.com and in Business HQmagazine, covering news and significant developments in this increasingly crucial area.

If you are interested in contributing editorially or interested in becoming a Climate for Change partner, please contact Stephen McTaggart on 0141 302 6137 or email stephen.mctaggart@heraldandtimes.co.uk