Ocean Energy

AuthorEuropean Union Publications Office, 2006

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Overview: Major Fields of Research and Key Nations Involved

Ocean Systems
R&;D Areas Wave, Tidal and Salinity
State of Commercialisation Ocean energy systems are at a pre-commercial stage; not yet competitive against conventional or renewable existing mature power generation technologies
Key Nations Japan, Denmark, UK
Expected contributions to EU energy policy targets A marginal contribution of
EC policy backing Green Electricity Directive 2001/77/EC; national feed-in tariffs
Key Member States Denmark, UK, Portugal (accounting for -95% of MS Ocean RTD funding)

The EC White Paper "Energy for the Future" estimates the potential for the exploitation of technologies like ocean currents, tidal and wave power - as well as other minor renewable energy technologies such as solar thermal power, hot dry rock etc. - as marginal, reaching not more than 1 GW by 2010.

Theoretically, ocean power could match half the world's electricity consumption. In practice only a handful of ocean systems are operating, most of them still in an immature form, and they will still need to go through a steep learning phase before becoming commercially viable. Two major problems must be solved concurrently: proving the energy conversion potential and overcoming a very high technical risk from a harsh environment84.

Research is currently being carried out on a wide variety of wave, tide, tidal current, salinity and thermal differential systems85. Depending on the type of system, research is more or less advanced, with some systems still at research and development stage while others are at pre-commercial demonstration stage: it is not yet evident which systems will emerge as winning technologies. Sustained and extensive RTD activity is required at both the fundamental and application levels in order to improve the performance of wave power conversion technologies and establish their competitiveness in the global energy market.

Based on the IEA Implementing Agreement on Ocean Energy Systems, the overall objectives of RTD can be described as follows:

* To study the feasibility of the various systems and how they compare with each other.

* To facilitate full-scale prototype development of multi-device "farm" projects where promising results have been already produced.

* To demonstrate long-term performance, reliability, functionality, accessibility and acceptance, and cost reduction, in order to show that wave technology is commercially viable.

Knowledge sharing and adapting experience from existing methods used in the oil, gas and offshore wind turbine industry are seen as an important element in accelerating the process and reducing costs.

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Research Objectives in the EC, Member States and Third Countries

The research strategy of the EC is to develop and test different applications and, if they are successful, upscale them in order to realise significant cost reductions. Some research lines, such as sole applications, have been terminated in EC research because they are considered to pose environmental problems. Other lines have been abandoned after evaluations have shown that the systems could not achieve the cost reduction objectives expected.

The Wave Dragon project exemplifies the strategic approach the EC is following in this area.

Wave Dragon is a typical supporting scheme project in the ocean area. Based on promising achievements in different phases, funding as well as venture capital investment have increased. The Wave Dragon project is expected to run for four years, with EU support of euros 2.4 M and an overall funding of euros 14.7 M.

The planning of the previous 1:50 model scale RTD programme was supported by an EU grant (Exploratory Award). The Wave Dragon Team was essentially established at this time. The 1:50 scale test rig and 1:3.5 scale model turbine extensive-test programme was supported by the European Commission within the framework of the JOULE III programme. Again supported by the EC (FP5), the achievements were incorporated into the design for the present 1:4.5 scale prototype.

In this programme the 1:3.5 scale turbine was implemented on the test rig86. Furthermore, Wave Dragon was the world's first offshore wave energy converter to produce power for the local grid in May 2003, utilising the test turbine from the previous EU Craft project.

The key objective is to increase wave utilisation rates to 16% and improve operating results through further system developments: the performance target for a commercially developed plant is 0.04 euros /kWh.

The idea of developing a Wave Dragon concept was launched in 1987 and was then developed in successive phases supported by the EC and Denmark. The principle of Wave Dragon is that two "tentacles" channel the waves towards a curved ramp. When the waves wash over the ramp, a large reservoir fills with water. The reservoir level is higher than the ocean surface and this difference in height is used to direct the water through the turbines that power the electricity generator. A 1:4.5 scale model, 57m wide, equipped with seven turbines and feeding power to the grid, has been tested since 2003 off the Danish North Sea coast. In the next phase a full-scale device will be launched offshore.

Member State involvement is extensive: Denmark, United Kingdom, Austria, Germany, Italy, Spain. Participants are small engineering companies and manufacturers from different countries with a strong maritime tradition, as well as research institutes.

Focal points of EC research are:

* Developing wave energy converters beyond the laboratory stage. In FP6 three different systems are being investigated: an offshore point absorber (SEEWEC), an offshore overtopping type (WAVE DRAGON), and one overtopping type suitable for breakwaters (WAVESSG).

* Establishing robust estimates of marine resources (methods and models), together with estimates of attainable and grid-connectable resources.

The latter means learning more about how waves behave and how the resource is characterised, as well as studies on the magnitude of loads created by the marine environment. Accordingly projects with the aim of promoting information sharing and identifying possible areas for coordination/collaboration have been launched in both Framework Programmes FP5 and FP6.

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In continuity with previous programmes87, RTD coordination activities in Europe are orchestrated by the EC. In FP6 the coordination action on wave and tidal issues88 brings together some 40 partners from research and mainly SME start-ups, in order to exchange information and develop a common knowledge base from which future research needs and possibilities for coordination and collaboration can be deduced. The issues discussed range from technical aspects such as key components to the economic and environmental problems the whole area is facing. At the level of day-to-day operations, a lot of companies from various countries are cooperating and sharing specific expertise with a very targeted focus.

In FP6 WAVETRAIN (Marie Curie Action), a training network focused on competitive ocean wave energy systems, has been set up and involves institutions from all the main countries supporting ocean RTD.

Basically most of the European countries with access to the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, as well as Mediterranean countries like Greece and Italy, are supporting RTD in this area. But research into ocean energy systems (OES) in Member States as well as in third countries is just a small part of their NNE RTD portfolios and, despite some activity in a few countries like Denmark and the UK, there is often no dedicated policy for OES and no specific targets. RTD in OES is for the most part funded within a common framework for supporting new energy technologies89. It seems that a country's choice of technologies and priority settings are very much a factor of the local research tradition and experience brought in by academics and industry.

A prominent example is Scotland, where a cluster of Scottish manufacturers and academia have formed the Marine Energy Consortium90, one of nine consortia within Britain's multi-technology research programme in Sustainable Power Generation and Supply (SuperGen).

The Danish Wave Energy Programme's aim is to isolate one or more wave energy converter concepts as a candidate for concentrated long-term development. Different concepts, such as point absorbers and the "Wave Dragon", have been funded within this programme. Portugal's main area of interest has been the Oscillating Water Column (OWC): full-size prototypes are being tested under real conditions at Pico in the Azores.

In addition to the focus on wave and tidal technologies in EU Member States, Norway has supported a salinity project since 2003. Due to the potential combined use of installations for hydropower and salinity in Norwegian fjords, this project is believed to offer very good prospects.

Extensive research has been undertaken in Japan since the 1970s, with particular emphasis on the construction and deployment of prototype devices (primarily OWCs). A prominent example is the so-called Mighty Whale, a 50 m long, 30 m wide, 12 m deep prototype that was inaugurated in mid-1998 at its mooring position just outside the mouth of Gokasho Bay. Minor parts of RTD interest in Japan lie in ocean thermal systems. But RTD in OES is no longer supported under the Japanese promotion scheme for new energy sources.

Canada has more than 10 technology developers who are working mainly on tidal technologies. Moreover, Canada has one of the world's largest tidal plants (20 MW), which has been running for the last 20 years.

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Funding for Ocean Energy System Research
European Commission-Funded Research

Only a small number of projects representing under 3% of the overall renewable budget were funded within FP5. In FP6 the number of projects remained constant, while the budget more than doubled91. This increase in average project funding is the direct result of the step-by-step approach to upscaling successful technologies already funded in previous Framework Programmes. Examples are SEEWEC (Sustainable Economically Efficient Wave Energy Converter), where the aim is to gain knowledge about performance in real sea conditions through monitoring of the 1:3 scale laboratory rig and the full-scale first-generation device, and WaveDragon (see above) which will be tested full-scale offshore. It is expected that the relative increase in funding planned for the next Framework Programme will also apply to the next budget for ocean systems.

Due to the different energy endowments, and as a reflection of expectations of the contribution ocean systems will make to energy policy goals, only a limited number of European national governments have provided substantial financial support for ocean RTD.

Research Funded at EU Country Level

The RTD budget of three Member States - United Kingdom, Denmark and Portugal - accounts for nearly 95% of the OES RTD funding of the EU 15. The UK supported ocean systems annually with euros 2.4 M in 2000-2004 and the budget has increased gradually in the last few years. With this level of government backing, in combination lu with very active marine enterprises, the UK is emerging as a global leader in developing the technology. In 2004 the first "Pelamis" went on sea trial in the Orkneys and was connected to the national grid for testing92.

Denmark's RTD average funding over the period of FP5 was euros 1.2 M per year. Since it started in the late-1980s, the WaveDragon project, which is also supported by the EC, received euros 7.6 M from Denmark and is the biggest single funding93 for a project in this area: the aim is to build an international front-line competence. Portugal does not have a specific funding scheme for OES: programmes for renewable energies are generic. Measures within the PRIME programme can be used to support R&D for ocean energy. Thus, the annual funding for OES varies.

Research Funded at Third Country Level

As ocean energy does not qualify as a new or renewable energy it is no longer supported under the Japanese scheme for promotion of the utilisation of new sources of energy. Funding in Japan has decreased dramatically94.

In Canada the funding for ocean energy is expected to grow as interest in the technology increases. Four provinces have expressed interest in ocean energy and this should translate into increased funding in coming years. The Ocean Renewable Energy Group (OREG), comprising 50-60 organisations, has been established to work on the development of ocean technologies: there is also a Centre of Excellence in ocean technology. There are also other projects under way such as a demonstration in British Columbia, which is industry-funded to the extent of 80% of the project cost.

The interest in wave energy in the United States is limited95, and ocean systems are not a matter of concern in the current US Energy Program.

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Evaluation and Conclusions
Technology Focus

The table below describes the relative importance of specific technology paths within the OES RTD portfolio of the EC, Japan, Canada and the largest funding EU Member States - the UK, Denmark and Portugal - with respect to budget priorities. The names of projects receiving a big share of funding are also featured.


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Globally, the EC together with some Member States are playing the leading role in ocean system research. Though in this area many technology paths (wave, tidal, thermal, salinity) are feasible, the technological focus of RTD at EC level is concentrated on a few promising wave energy system technologies. The technologies funded have produced promising results in terms of reliability, maintenance and cost reduction during past research periods, and are assumed to be best suited to the natural maritime landscape of the European Atlantic coast. Other technology paths, like salinity and ocean thermal systems which have a long-term RTD perspective, are a minor matter of concern in Europe but are being investigated, for example, by Norway with a view to the combined use of installations for hydropower and salinity.

Demonstration activities, strongly supported by private investment, show the increasing confidence in the prospects for this technology. The expression of interest of countries like Canada and Japan in cooperating on OES via the IEA Implementing Agreement can be interpreted not only as an indicator of the general mission to make ocean energy technologies a significant energy option in the mid-term future96, but also as global acceptance of Europe's achievements in wave technologies. Ocean RTD is mainly oriented towards projects with a medium to long term impact. Research in this area, from concept to the commercial stage, is difficult as it is a time-consuming and expensive process. Considerable investment is needed for units, moorings and connections to the grid. Several systems offer promising perspectives at the laboratory stage, but robust results and extensive experience can only be attained through full-scale operation. The innovation process is accordingly characterised by a step-by-step approach, from feasibility studies and laboratory research via tests of small-scale prototypes under marine conditions to implementation of full-scale installations. At every step, predetermined criteria have to be met before the next step can be taken. This strategy requires continuity of research support.

Ocean systems is still an emerging area and, even though the research community is limited compared to other research areas, there is a need for knowledge sharing. With regard to the overall OES budget, in Europe much emphasis is placed on coordinating measures as well as support for the exchange of researchers. Ocean energy systems often share similar challenges to the offshore wind sector, particularly with regard to grid connection and integration, drilling and maintenance, and environmental issues. Again, these common RTD challenges call for knowledge sharing as well as a properly coordinated research.


Two major factors differentiate Europe's public funding from third countries. The first is the level of funding, as Europe is the only area where significant public funding is deployed for research into ocean energy systems. Though the overall budget for OES is small compared to other renewable funding, the EC dedicated an average annual funding of euros 6.5 M in the period 2000-2004: this corresponds to 2% of the overall renewable budget. The second and perhaps more significant distinction is the continuity of funding OES research receives in Europe.

Up to 2001, Japan had a level of funding comparable to Europe but Japan massively reduced and later phased out its public research efforts in the field, while for the US OES was never a matter of concern in terms of public RTD funding.

Research and Technology Development

Ocean energy systems have still to face technical challenges that require continuated research and development. Some concepts have already shown their feasibility, but there is a need for these technologies to demonstrate long-term performance, reliability and cost reduction to prove themselves commercially viable. Concentrating on a very limited number of technology development projects is risky. On the other hand, the strategy of streamlining an area and clearly picking winning technologies, in collaboration with a limited but focused number of European countries and companies, opens up the possibility of initiating a comparable success story to that of the wind energy sector.

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Within the next Work Programme, some experts are expecting important advancements in the area concerning commercialisation. Reasons for this are:

* Remarkable improvements in reliability, maintenance and cost reductions.

* The limited number of stakeholders (SMEs, research, countries) in this area is being pooled through a Coordinated Action and through the exchange of researchers.

* The involvement of industry and operators has increased over the last couple of years and investors show greater confidence in the technology.

* National governments are backing the area not only in terms of energy policy objectives, but also in strengthening existing companies with experience in the maritime field.

These features form a solid foundation for Europe to keep its leading position in this area. Whether the conditions are sufficient to gain a similar status as in the wind area depends on the achievements in technology development, as well as on the continuity of support from the countries and industrial players concerned.


[84] -IEA (2005), p. 29

[85] - A very detailed description gives AEA technologies et al: WaveNet. Results from the work of the European Thematic Network on Wave Energy, Brussels 2003

[86] - http://www.wavedragon.net/EU/ECproject.htm

[87] - WaveNetinFP5

[88] - Coordinated by RAMBOLL DANMARK A/S

[89] - Compare International Energy Agency (2003), pp 29-38

[90] - Forum for Renewable Energy Development in Scotland, Report 2004

[91] - For details on EC funding to bioenergy in FP5 and FP6, refer to Annex VI. 1

[92] - In 2005 a Portuguese consortium ordered three Pelamis P-750 machines from Ocean Power Delivery Ltd, Scotland, for the initial phase of the world's first commercial wave farm to generate renewable electricity from ocean waves. If first tests meet expectations, the offshore ocean farm will be extended to 20 MW. This project benefits from a special feed-in tariff by the Portuguese Government.

[93] - Danish Energy Authority (2003)

[94] - IEA/OES 2003, p. 30

[95] - Compare Clément, Alain et. al. (2003)

[96] - International Energy Agency (2003)

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