As fossil-free as it may be, hydropower brings with it its specific challenges. It has high initial costs and can often be invasive and destructive to local communities and biodiversity. It is also likely to become increasingly vulnerable to drought. But what if we could harness the power of the oceans themselves?
This is exactly what Orbital Marine Power, based in Scotland, aims to achieve with its 2 MW+ O2. Its developers say it is the world’s most powerful tidal turbine in commercial operation and the result of 15 years of refinement.
Now Orbital has just received an option agreement from Crown Estate Scotland for a new tidal power project in the Westray Firth. This is an area of water in the Orkney Islands where tidal speeds in excess of 3 m/s can be reached.
Adding more tidal turbines to the Ocean Power Center
The low-carbon energy startup has already deployed a unit of the O2 at the European Marine Energy Center (EMEC) and has been powering the UK grid since July 2021. Following the award of Contracts for Difference (CfDs) – the UK government’s main mechanism to support low-carbon power generation – from Allocation Round 4 last year, the UK government is preparing to install three more turbines.
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Essentially, tidal turbines work just like a wind turbine, except they are moved by water currents rather than air. Orbital’s O2 floating platform is 243 feet long and is placed in tidal currents and anchored to the seabed via strong anchors that hold it in place. It is connected to the local power grid via a submarine cable.
The device catches the powerful water currents with underwater rotors attached to adjustable legs. Engineering and maintenance can then raise the legs above the surface for easier access. In addition, the rotor design can be reversed to accommodate different tidal cycles.
Part of the broader UK net zero strategy
Orbital will build the new part of its Orkney project adjacent to the EMEC. The option agreement covers 30 MW, which the company says would equate to approximately 12 new O2 tidal turbines at the site. Orbital has also confirmed that it has the necessary grid connectivity to service the project.
Commenting on the securing of the Crown Agreement, Orbital Marine Power CEO Andrew Scott said:
“As the UK seeks to accelerate the decarbonisation of its energy system, we firmly believe that tidal projects can bring unique benefits while harnessing a perfectly predictable and secure source of renewable energy. We are proud to realize this vision with this investment in our Westray project in Orkney.”
Andrew Scott, CEO of Orbital Marine Energy
Last year, Orbital also received a strategic investment from French-American offshore oil entrepreneur TechnipFMC to “accelerate market expansion and deployment,” with TechnipFMC becoming a shareholder in the company.
Ocean energy could play a big part in the energy transition, but it needs to be scaled up quickly
The oceans indeed have a lot to offer when it comes to renewable energy. Tidal energy projects have long had significant potential but are still an underdeveloped energy source. In a 2018 report, the IEA described offshore renewable power generation as “rising force in global energy.”
However, it needs to be deployed much faster, reaching a target capacity of 27.0 TWh by 2030 for a net-zero scenario by 2050. That means it needs to grow at a rate of over 33% per year from now until the end of the decade, which would require multiple fleets of Orbital O2s.
But things are picking up speed. As reported by Energy Technologyin the UK, four projects totaling 4.08 MW were commissioned in 2022.
It is encouraging to see positive signals from @energygovuk in their announcement today of a ringfence allowance in support of #tidalenergy in AR5 of this year’s Contracts for Difference program. 🙌https://t.co/1YbxIWIrkN
— Orbital Marine Power (@Orbitalmarine) March 16, 2023
Alistair Carmichael, MP for Orkney and Shetland, commented on the new project with Orbital:
“These are exciting times for tidal current energy. The progress made on Orbital’s Westray project is a vote of confidence in the potential here in the islands and shows exactly why expanding grid capacity was so important to Orkney.
“This good news is also evidence of the need for a more robust government tidal current deployment strategy, including continued and expanded support in the next round of Contracts for Difference funding. We must continue to push the development forward in the coming years.”
With a number of tidal and ocean energy startups vying for coastlines across the UK, this technology could perhaps hold one of the keys to non-invasive and unobtrusive reliable renewable energy generation. Let’s wave and see.
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