World's Largest Tidal Power Turbine Is Unveiled

Industry leaders gathered last week at the Global Marine Renewable Energy Conference in Seattle, mindful that wave and tidal are clean energy’s infants, on the cusp of toddlerhood, struggling to get up on their feet, while older siblings wind and solar sprint to new records.

Nobody has lost faith that the vast energy of the seas and rivers will one day be harnessed with environmentally friendly hydrokinetic devices; rather, marine renewable energy players are expressing hard-won awareness of just how challenging their undertaking is – to settle on technologies, to bring down costs and to obtain financing.

“I never thought it would take this long,” said Resolute Marine Energy CEO Bill Staby, who founded the Boston-based company in 2007. Nor did Christopher Sauer. “If you had told me it would take ten years to get to where we are, I don’t know what I would have done,” said Sauer, who began at Maine’s Ocean Renewable Power Company (ORPC) in 2004 as chief technology officer and has been the company’s CEO since 2006.

Staby and Sauer and their colleagues remain passionate and hopeful, but with recalibrated expectations. In other words, forget for now about big projects that send massive amounts of energy to the grid in competition with wind and solar (let alone shale gas).

“We need to do smaller projects first,” said Sauer, whose company began to do just that in 2012, when it struck a U.S. first by putting a tidal device in the water and sending energy ashore, in Maine. “We need to deploy devices and get the operating data, including environmental – that’s very, very important.”

A record of achievement, these industry leaders said, could help build confidence with investors, who blanch at unproven technologies, high costs and vast development horizons. The industry is forced to turn to governments for much of its funding.

“In 2007, the world seemed ready for this kind of thing,” said Verdant Power cofounder and president Ron Smith. “Then came the financial crisis…. Since 2008, the biggest pacing factor has been capital availability.”

Verdant demonstrated a tidal turbine device (it looks and operates like a wind turbine, but underwater) in New York City’s East River and continues to inch toward a small commercial installation there. The company is also pursuing a possible Turkey project. But it’s baby steps: “This technology really becomes commercial five to seven years from now,” Smith said.

Clear-eyed realism is the watchword even in Scotland, the beating heart of the global wave and tidal industry.

While the sector has produced “lots of research, lots of studies, lots of modeling, lots of conferences like the type we’re attending, what it hasn’t done is produce more than a very, very small tonnage of metal in the water producing a trickle of energy,” said Calum Davidson, director of energy and carbon at the Scottish development body Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

In the U.S. at least, tidal energy, with a narrower range of device types in play, appears to be developing faster than wave energy, where a seemingly endless variety of technologies continue to be explored. While ORPC and Verdant have met with some success with their pilot projects, the first major installation of a wave energy buoy wasn’t so lucky. That was the high-profile plan by Ocean Power Technologies to deploy off Reedsport, Ore., in 2012. It didn’t happen, amid technological, financial and regulatory problems, and earlier this month the company officially pulled the plug on the project. That left a massive, fully constructed, energy-harvesting buoy on the land in Portland and the U.S. without a wave energy project ready to roll.

“Wave is hard,” Davidson said. “Wave is really, really hard. We’ve demonstrated lots of successful devices, but getting them to the next stage is really difficult.”