Solar panels and wind farms have become all the rage lately as companies and governments attempt to shift from traditional fuels towards renewable energies. But there has been one massive source of untapped energy widely ignored by the greater public – the ocean.
Flowing water accounts for almost three-fourths of the world’s renewable energy, most of which is produced by hydroelectric dams. A vast majority of this energy is harnessed from water originating from rivers and lakes, but researchers have recently studied the benefits of exploiting tidal energy to meet worldwide energy demands.
Tidal energy is a clean renewable resource that is available wherever there are changing tides.
The most common way to generate tidal electricity is by building a large dam across an estuary, capturing energy from incoming and outgoing currents. Once water from the incoming tide has seeped into the dam, it flows into an area where the dam’s turbines can harness kinetic energy from the movement of the water to generate electricity.
Another very effective way to capture tidal energy is by placing free standing turbines, which look like big fans, in offshore tidal streams. The fans are similar to ones you would see at a wind farm, except they are underwater and spun by the ocean’s currents instead of the wind. The ocean’s tidal streams, although slow moving, carry an enormous amount of kinetic energy and spin the turbine propellers to generate electricity.
Generation of electricity though tidal power works best in areas that have strong currents and tides that fluctuate dramatically. The Pacific Northwest, including Washington’s Puget Sound, is an ideal location for the conversion of tidal energy. A study done by the Electric Policy Research Institute found that tidal energy produced from the waves off Oregon’s coast could power 28 million homes annually. Maine also has tremendous promise for marine energy production.
The coast of Alaska is also another goldmine of tidal power. With 44,000 miles of coastline, Alaska contains some of the largest tidal ranges in the world. It is estimated that if harnessed to its fully capabilities, Alaska’s southern coast alone could generate enough tidal power to produce 300 times the electricity Alaskans use each year.
According to the U.S. Energy Department, by harvesting tidal energy nation-wide, the United States could theoretically meet one-third of its demand for electricity. The Northwest Marine Renewable Energy Center puts that figure around 20 percent.
The world stands to reap tremendous benefits that tidal energy can offer, but it is still a nascent industry, the growth of which has been stifled by a lack of investment. Last year the industry attracted only $333 million dollars, partly because tidal technology is costly compared to other green energy technologies.
Although tidal energy costs more to produce than other forms of renewable energy, it has tremendous upsides that other forms do not. Tidal power is a much more efficient energy source compared to solar and wind. Also, tides are very predictable, giving tidal energy the capacity to be captured efficiently.
Although there has been little investment into this energy sector, there are many tidal power projects under development all over the world.
In Wales, one of the first full scale tidal energy generators was recently unveiled. When it is fully operational, the generators can power 10,000 homes. In 2017, Wales will also be home to a new tidal power plant that will produce enough energy to power 121,000 homes.
In North America, the U.S. Energy Department has shelled out $16 million for projects that will help advance technological development in the tidal energy sector and 30 tidal turbines are slated to be installed in New York City’s East River.
Most marine energy technologies are still in their developmental stages, but if given some time, tidal energy has the potential to become the world’s leading source of renewable energy production.
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