Recognizing the impact of global energy systems on climate change, the Policy and Innovation Group (P&IG) at the University of Edinburgh has mapped out the current state of ocean energy in the UK. Their series of reports sets out the developments and challenges in fostering a sustainable energy future, and the importance of ocean energy to diversify and propel the UK towards net zero emissions.

Orbital O2 tidal stream device operating at EMEC test site in Orkney, credit: Orbital Marine Power

State of energy systems and the path forward

Global temperatures are rising, demanding urgent action from the global community. In 2023, the world experienced the hottest climate since the beginning of global records in the 1850s. The Copernicus Climate Change Service determined that the global average temperature reached 14.98°C, which was 0.17°C higher than the previous record set in 2016. These developments verge closer to the worldwide temperature benchmark of 1.5°C set by the 2015 Paris Agreemen, above which could lead to drastic and catastrophic impacts on ecosystems, organisms and human systems according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Part of the problem is linked to global energy systems. About 80% of global energy production is tied to fossil fuels, which generate greenhouse gases and trap the sun’s heat. In response, the International Energy Agency (IEA), an autonomous inter-governmental organisation which shapes global energy policies, released a special report for a net zero future by 2050. The report cited a need not only to deploy current technologies at scale but also to support innovation for renewable technologies that have yet to reach commercialisation. The initial and major reductions in global CO2 emissions will be made using existing technologies such as solar panels and on-/off-shore wind technologies. However, by 2050 emission reduction targets will need to rely on diversifying and using other technologies that are currently in their infancy like ocean energy sources.

One promising technology area that has yet to reach widespread commercial deployment is wave and tidal stream energy. While the potential contribution that this sector can make to the global drive for a net-zero future is becoming increasingly acknowledged by energy policymakers, there are still a number of challenges to overcome. To support and encourage sustained innovation in this sector, the P&IG has partnered with national and international agencies such as Supergen ORE, Wave Energy Scotland and Marine Energy Council, Ocean Energy Systems and more, to produce a suite of policy guidance reports and roadmaps, designed to provide comprehensive analysis of the policy options and solutions available to the sector.

CorPower Ocean’s C4 wave energy converter, credit: CorPower Ocean

What is the Policy and Innovation Group?

Forming part of the University’s Institute for Energy Systems (IES), the Policy and Innovation Group (P&IG) is a research group that brings together expertise in energy ranging from technology and energy systems to policy and regulation.

Led by Professor Henry Jeffrey, Head of Policy and Innovation Group (P&IG) and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Edinburgh, working alongside his current senior research associates, Dr Donald Noble and Mr Kristofer Grattan>, the P&IG has, over the last decade, employed a widely skilled team of energy researchers to tackle the ocean energy sector’s most pressing issues. The P&IG’s central aim is to create strategy and investment roadmaps which can feed towards public and private investment, government and organisation funding. These practices can inspire and encourage stronger commitments towards ocean energy technologies.

Inspired by the IEA’s 2050 report, the P&IG partnered with the International Energy Agencies Technology Collaboration Programme on Ocean Energy Systems (IEA-OES), an intergovernmental collaboration between countries operating under the IEA framework and the US Department of Energy, to produce their own roadmap report, specific to wave and tidal stream energy.

The IEA-OES roadmap details a vision to deploy 300GW of ocean energy by 2050. Released in anticipation of COP28, the roadmap offers an ambitious plan with three identified targets: preventing the creation of over 500 million tonnes of carbon emissions, generation of more than 680,000 jobs and contribution of $340 billion in gross value added to global economies. Working towards this goal, four key policy areas were targeted: the need for sustained innovation support, implementation of strong market pull policy mechanisms, infrastructure development and the review of regulatory frameworks.

Supporting the IEA-OES roadmap, the P&IG published its own suite of policy guidance reports, referred to as the ocean energy policymakers toolkit. The 5 reports contained in this toolkit are dedicated to 5 specific areas of interest: deployment modelling, economic impact (‘GVA’), energy systems benefit, the role of policy support, and innovation challenge areas.

The UK’s big splash into the renewable ocean energy market

Geographically, the UK is positioned in the ideal location for ocean energy. Lined with several coastal areas, it can benefit heavily from the deployment of further tidal stream and wave devices. Tidal stream devices convert the kinetic energy from tidal currents to generate electricity, whereas wave devices harness energy from wind-driven waves at the ocean’s surface.

Unlike solar and wind, which intermittently generate energy, wave and tidal stream offers a more reliable and predictable energy source. For example, wave energy peaks in the winter months when domestic energy demand is at its most intense and tidal streams can be predicted years in advance, to allow for greater forward planning of the energy system.

However, to support the entry and development of ocean energy technologies, the P&IG also highlighted some of the measures needed to realise these benefits. A common theme across the reports is the need to break down the barriers to entry for wave and tidal energy. Through the application of cost-reduction measures, the ocean energy sector is hopeful to achieve a target cost of €150/MWh for wave and €100/MWh for tidal stream by 2030. By achieving these targets, the sector could optimistically deploy in excess of 12GW of ocean energy by 2050. With the current installed capacity for electricity generation in the UK estimated around 105GW, the commercial ocean energy sector could transform this sector further.

In addition to this contribution to the UK’s net zero ambitions, the P&IG also found that by applying the economic performance metric, Gross Value Added (GVA), the deployment of ocean energy can present a significant increase in the UK’s overall economy. GVA is a measure used to calculate the economic contribution made by individual producers, industries, sectors and regions. Not only could domestic exports of wave and tidal stream technologies generate between £4.9-8.9bn in GVA, international roll out could add a further £6.4-32.1bn

The P&IG also found that the overall energy system benefit taken from including ocean energy into the energy mix can lead to an annual reduction of £1.03B in the cost of dispatch and decrease the dispatch of fossil fuels by 300GWh. Although promising, the development of tidal stream and wave energy has its barriers. The P&IG acknowledged that making ocean energy competitive against more mature technologies (wind and solar) would require measures that encourage the commercialisation of the sector. They argue the need for strategic and balanced innovation programmes that carefully coordinate technology push policies, which support innovation and encourage cost reductions in technology development, with market pull policies, which provide long-term support to facilitate commercialisation and deployment of technologies.  

A link for further details on the recommendations and challenges uncovered by the P&IG can be found here.

Beyond the sea and into the future

Efforts made by initiatives such as the University’s Policy and Innovation Group demonstrate that the inclusion of other valuable sources of energy like wave and tidal stream are promising and achievable with the right support, tools, and attention.

Reliance on a limited number of renewable energy sources won’t be sufficient in the long-run to meet the net zero emissions. Gaining a better understanding of the landscape of ocean energy is crucial to achieve the innovation and diversification required within the UK energy mix, but also internationally. It reveals important information such as the strengths, weaknesses and gaps in the current energy sector, and recommendations on how to proceed.

If you would like to know more about the latest advances in ocean energy within the UK, the P&IG publishes its own annual, written in collaboration with the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, the Marine Energy Council, Wave Energy Scotland and the Supergen ORE Hub.