The waves that drive Europe

Giancarlo Strocchia*

The identification of new energy sources is a primary goal for Europe, which is increasingly looking for alternatives to its dependence on fossil fuels to meet the objectives imposed by the need to limit carbon emissions. In support of the Old Continent, the Ocean could play a major role, as its propulsive force could help, within a favorable economic and regulatory framework, to meet 10% of Europe’s energy needs by 2050. If, within this period, as planned, the EU intends to achieve the objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80–95% compared with 1990 levels, it will surely need other technologies to further diversify its own ability to produce low-carbon energy. The energy generated by the ocean sector could prevent the equivalent of 276 million tons of CO2 emissions per year. Europe’s seas and oceans could therefore play a key role in overcoming one of the greatest challenges faced by the EU: energy transition from a system based on imported fossil fuels to a flexible, interconnected system based on clean, renewable and potentially infinite internal resources.

A market that is yet to ‘’sail’’

Europe and its energy industry could become a frontier region for the development of ocean energy. The first use of ocean energy dates back to 1966, when a 240 MW project was created from exploiting tidal waves at La Rance, in France. Subsequently, in 1999, a device for wave energy was tested in Portugal. Until mid-2016, 17 MW of tidal power and 12 MW of wave energy have been used, bringing the cumulative capacity used up to 269 MW. Currently, the cumulative capacity used amounts to approximately 252 MW. If, during the next decade, Brussels proceeds to define an adequate regulatory framework of support, Europe could achieve leadership over a global market, potentially worth €653 billion by 2050, as well as an annual market that can generate a further €53 billion, with a considerable; benefit to the continental economy. Ocean energy is an abundant, geographically diversified and renewable resource. Developing the necessary technology to exploit its potential offers Europe the possibility of creating a new industry, creating employment and grasping major export opportunities. The industry association, Ocean Energy Europe, estimates that by 2050, 100 GW of wave energy will be used in Europe. This goal reflects recent studies on the practical potential of the use of ocean energy in Europe. The global ocean energy market could reach an installed capacity of 337 GW by 2050, a third of what could be generated in Europe. Currently, the European Union is home to 45% of companies worldwide engaged in ocean energy.

A field where innovation is imperative

Many of these companies are engaged in the development of new technologies capable of fully exploiting the energy potential of waves. Each innovative methodology must now pass the demonstration stage to reach the technological validation, which is essential for the development of the industry, and to attract the capital necessary for the practical implementation of the projects. The test conditions for marine energy technologies are much harder in many respects than those for wind power. To resolve these obstacles and effectively develop various resources, the ocean energy sector is developing various ideas, including: devices for small waves for calmer seas such as the Mediterranean, smaller tidal turbines for slower currents or areas near the coast, and devices that can be connected to the walls of piers, dams, bridges and other existing infrastructure. It should be considered, however, that in the last 10 years, the ocean energy sector has invested an estimated capital of €1 billion in Europe, mainly aimed at the practical application, in the continental waters, of ideas expressly only on paper. It is estimated that use of ocean energy will reach a cumulative capacity of 850 MW by 2020, and will need further investments to be unlocked. National and European funds have been crucial for fully exploiting private investments in the sector. It is expected that between 2015 and 2020, Europe’s ocean energy sector may spend €1 billion on research and development activities and €3–4 billion to implement the planned capacities. This will only happen with the continuous support of the European and national funds as well as high-risk public financial products, such as the European Investment Bank’s EDP InnovFin.

A great help to the most isolated territories

A solid ocean energy development project could have a further positive result. The remote location of small islands, especially in northern Europe, and other locations can in fact involve high electricity costs due to dependence on oil generators; ocean energy can therefore be a feasible and more competitive solution. The higher price paid for electricity in these areas will allow for the use of ocean energy with less support, while at the same time ensuring a return on investment.

*Originally published on