Ocean power, also referred to as marine energy, comprises a broad section of hydropower technologies. Rather than using the force of water falling down a dam or the natural flow of a river, marine energy uses the oceans to generate power. Ocean power may also include forms of chemical or thermal energy generation.
Since the oceans cover the majority of the Earth’s surface, and there are no additional fuel requirements, all forms of marine power are completely renewable. They are also clean, with minimal emissions, though the construction of power plants may still have a significant effect on the surrounding ecosystem.
Lets take a look at the various forms of ocean power in use today.
Unlike other forms of renewable energy sources, such as wind, wave or solar, tidal energy is highly efficient and predictable. Tidal energy uses the natural movement of the Earths solar and lunar tides to drive turbines which generate electricity. The concept is similar to that used in conventional hydroelectric power stations such as dams and run-of-the-river schemes.
Tidal energy has very specific location requirements, since the extent of the tides varies enormously depending on factors such as the topography of the seabed and the surrounding coastline. In Europe, most tidal power schemes are really only suited to locations like western Norway and the coasts of the UK. The world’s largest tidal energy station, generating 254 MW of energy, is located in South Korea.
Wave power is a rarer form of ocean power and one which has not received a great deal of funding for research and development yet. However, experts estimate, that using technology which is currently available, the power of the ocean waves could provide as much as ten percent of the world’s energy. Wave power may also be used for pumping water or desalinating water rather than generating electricity.
Wave power is largely in its experimental stage. The first commercial facility, the Aguçadoura Wave Farm in Portugal, only opened for operation in 2008. And then it closed after two months due to technical issues.
A major wave power research project, the Wave Hub, with a maximum power generation capacity of 40 MW is currently underway off the coast of Cornwall, UK.
OCEAN THERMAL ENERGY
If you ever dive deep enough under water, you’ll likely notice the difference between the temperatures of the water near the surface and that of the water deeper down. Ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) uses this heat differential for generating electrical energy. This form of ocean power presents the advantage of being able to function consistently at all times.
Currently, there are no commercial OTEC facilities in operation, but research is underway in a number of countries, including the United States and Japan. Among these is the joint project of Makai Ocean Engineering and Lockheed Martin in Hawaii. The project is to create a 10 MW facility, which would be enough to provide power to two- to three-thousand homes.
Osmotic power may sound esoteric, but it actually builds upon technologies which have been around for decades. Also known as salinity gradient power, osmotic power generates electricity from the difference in salt concentration (salinity) between fresh river water and salty seawater. This is a form of chemical energy rather than conventional hydropower.
There are a number of methods used to generate electricity in this manner, but there is currently only one osmotic power plant in operation in the world today. The Statkraft osmotic power prototype was opened in Tofte, Norway in 2009. Although it only provides a maximum power output of four kilowatts, a commercial plant is planned to be constructed by 2015.
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