The Future of Ocean Energy

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Written By: Emma Websdale

Accelerating growth and investment into renewable energy is far more than just tackling climate change. With the use of renewable energy also comes reductions in air pollution and carbon emissions that will enhance our own health and future economic vitality. Strengthening the renewable industry additionally, promotes energy security and job growth, as well as helping many countries to meet their energy policy goals.

Over the past decade, we have seen a tremendous growth in the interest and use of renewables. Solar panels have dropped in price, taking small-scale residential PV power much closer to competitiveness, while wind turbines have cropped up alongside highways and upon the horizon of our oceans.

Take European wind power for example. In 1980, the global installed capacity for wind power was 10 MegaWatt (MW); today this number has exceeded 100 GigaWatt (GW) -helping Europe meet its 20% carbon reduction target for 2020. Other examples of renewable growth have been documented by Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s report, Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2013’, which demonstrated an increase in China’s renewable investment to $67 billion, while Japan saw investments increase 73% to $16 billion.

Why we should continue expanding our renewable energy technologies

So with our current renewable alternatives paving the way to a sustainable, cleaner and economically sound future, how can we continue diversifying our renewables options?

Answering this question, a recent report from the European Ocean Energy, entitled ‘Industry Vision Paper, 2013’ explores the potential for adding and expanding the ocean energy sector to the renewables mix, and its outcome seems very promising. Currently, ocean energy is the world’s greatest remaining source of untapped renewable energy, holding significant potential in decarbonizing future electricity supplies. In fact, tapping into energy from our oceans has already begun –particularly those of Europe. Over the past 7 years, €600 million ($827 million) of private sector investment has already gone into the ocean energy sector. Presently, over 10MW of ocean-going devices are installed within European waters –a large boost from 2009’s 3.5MW of ocean-produced energy. Meanwhile, Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported that small hydro investments increased by 20% to $7.8 billion in 2012.


The European Ocean Energy’s report suggests that by harnessing ocean energy (via the use of tidal power, wave power, Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) and salinity gradient), energy security and system stability will increase, and as a result, the overall price of renewable energy will decrease. The report predicts that revitalizing traditional maritime sectors via the use of ocean energy can also drive industrial growth and create jobs and exports.

In another recent report on Blue Growth by The Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (DG MARE), ocean energy employment in Europe alone was estimated to increase from 1,000 in 2010 to a potential 20,000 by 2035. Meanwhile, trade body RenewableUK estimated similar figures of the ocean energy sector generating 10,000 jobs by 2020 and up to 20,000 jobs by 2035.

In recent years, large European engineering companies and utilities have ramped up their investments into the ocean energy sector, triggering steady progress. Meanwhile, countries including the USA, Japan, China and Korea have also rapidly begun increasing their investments in pre-commercial energy ocean device testing. A 2011 report from the International Energy Agency, ‘Ocean Energy Systems: International Vision Report’ estimated that given the right market conditions, the development of 748 GW’s of ocean energy by 2050, could generate 160,000 direct jobs by 2030 and save up to 5.2 billion tons of CO2 by 2050.

One ocean energy technology that has already been proven to work is Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC). By utilizing the natural temperature differences between warm surface waters and deep cold water, this technology, without burning fossil fuels, generates a baseload (24/7) supply of renewable energy.

Eighty percent of the sun’s energy is stored within the world’s ocean surface waters every day. That’s 4,000 times the amount of energy the world uses on a daily basis. With over $300 million Research and Development funds previously spent proving OTEC, and a 2009 report from the highly respected National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration opining that 10MW OTEC plants are now technically feasible to build, using all off-the-shelf components,  OTEC is now ripe for large scale commercial development. At current oil prices, the technology is now especially price competitive in tropical and sub-tropical communities paying exorbitant electricity costs ($0.30 – $0.60 kWh) based upon imported fossil fuels.

Onshore OTEC Plant

Moreover, by using its own supply of sustainable 24/7 energy, OTEC can also produce tremendous volumes of fresh drinking water –thus producing two of the most fundamental needs to human life. Building OTEC plants around the world thereby offers many communities the means to achieve a sustainable and independent future by eliminating their exposure to volatile oil prices and instead, relying on their most abundant and accessible local resource: the ocean.

With twenty years of uninterrupted cold deep ocean water flow through the pipes still operating today at the site of Hawaii’s OTEC demonstration plant, the durability of these key OTEC components has been well proven in the face of category IV hurricane, nearby earthquake and numerous tropical storms. Additionally, OTEC plants do not come with the high-maintenance costs that are often associated with other ocean energy technologies, as land-based OTEC plants have no moving parts below the water’s surface.

Data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the United States Department of Energy website has indicated that at least 68 countries and 29 territories around the globe are potential candidates for OTEC plants. Though this technology is ideally suited for tropical locations, OTEC’s reach can expand easily into sub-tropical regions where waste heat is available, thus enabling OTEC applications to a wide geographic band where 3 billion people live. By any measure, OTEC’s capacity for global clean energy and fresh water production is tremendous.

The future of our renewable energy options

Over recent years, the devastating effects of climate change have swept across many nations, leaving millions to worry about the consequences of failing to transition into a safe and sustainable energy future. Fortunately, many countries have begun responding with a steadfast determination to reduce their carbon emissions -one of the main contributors to climate change.  Europe for example, aims to reduce 80-95% of its carbon emissions by 2050, while U.S. President Barack Obama has previously proposed a national goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 83% by 2050. However, in order to achieve such targets, diversifying the sources of renewable energy available to the market as sustainable avenues for economic growth is a top priority.

By globally commercializing ocean energy technologies, communities world-wide can be equipped with the self-empowerment tools to build independent, sustainable futures, while opening up enormous investment opportunities inevitably presented in meeting our core world markets.

With ocean energy production now accelerating job growth, infrastructure reconstruction and clean energy production, investments into ocean energy technologies such as Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) should be paramount in the coming years.