Energy from the Sea. A Difficult Environmental Choice.

If you have many problems and you are forced to do something, it makes sense to choose any option that solves more than one problem. So now, thanks to a certain virus, changes to our economic system will be forced on us, so why not do something about carbon emissions at the same time? The enthusiast will tell us science offers us a number of options, so let’s get on with it. The enthusiast trots out what supports his view, but what about what he does not say? Look at the following.

An assessment from the US Energy Information Administration states the world will use 21,000 TWh of electricity in 2020. According to the International Energy Agency, the waves in the world’s oceans store about 80,000 TWh. Of course much of that is, well, out at sea, but they estimate about 4,000 TWh could be harvested. While that is less than 20% of what is needed, it is still a huge amount. They are a little coy on how this could be done, though. Wave power depends on wave height (the amplitude of the wave) and how fast the waves are moving (the phase velocity). One point is that waves usually move to the coast, and there are many parts of the world where there are usually waves of reasonable amplitude so an energy source is there.

Ocean currents also have power, and the oceans are really one giant heat engine. One estimate claimed that 0.1% of the power of the Gulf Stream running along the East Coast of the US would be equivalent to 150 nuclear power stations. Yes, but the obvious problem is the cross-sectional area of the Gulf Stream. Enormous amounts of energy may be present, but the water is moving fairly slowly, so a huge area has to be trapped to get that energy. 

It is simpler to extract energy from tides, if you can find appropriate places. If a partial dam can be put across a narrow river mouth that has broad low-lying ground behind it, quite significant flows can be generated for most of the day. Further, unlike solar and wind power, tides are very predictable. Tides vary in amplitude, with a record apparently going to the Bay of Fundy in Canada: 15 meters in height.

So why don’t we use these forms of energy? Waves and tides are guaranteed renewable and we do not have to do anything to generate them. A surprising fraction of the population lives close to the sea, so transmission costs for them would be straightforward. Similarly, tidal power works well even at low water speeds because compared with wind, water is much denser, and the equipment lasts longer. La Rance, in France, has been operational since 1966. They also do not take up valuable agricultural land. On the other hand, they disturb sea life. A number of fish appear to use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate and nobody knows if EMF emissions have an effect on marine life. Turbine blades most certainly will. They also tend to be needed near cities, which means they disturb fishing boats and commercial ships.

There are basically two problems. One is engineering. The sea is not a very forgiving place, and when storms come, the water has serious power. The history of wave power is littered with washed up structures, smashed to pieces in storms. Apparently an underwater turbine was put in the Bay of Fundy, but it lasted less than a month. There is a second technical problem: how to make electricity? The usual way would be to move wire through a magnetic field, which is the usual form of a generator/dynamo. The issue here is salt water must be kept completely out, which is less than easy. Since waves go up and down, an alternative is to have some sort of float that mechanically transmits the energy to a generator on shore. That can be made to work on a small scale, but it is less desirable on a larger scale.The second problem is financial. Since history is littered with failed attempts, investors get wary, and perhaps rightly so. There may be huge energies present, but they are dispersed over huge areas, which means power densities are low, and the economics usually become unattractive. Further, while the environmentalists plead for something like this, inevitably it will be, “Somewhere else, please. Not in my line of sight.” So, my guess is this is not a practical solution now or anytime in the reasonable future other than for small specialized efforts.