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The growth of MHK hydropower

According to new analysis, the evolution of marine hydro kinetic technologies for generating electricity from waves and tides into a commercial reality is taking longer than hoped and costing far more money than expected. As a result, Bloomberg New Energy Finance says it is revising its previous 2020 forecasts for global installations downwards.

They suggest that global installations of wave power plants may reach 21 MW by the end of this decade, 72 percent less than originally forecast, meanwhile tidal stream capacity may reach 148 MW, about 21 percent less than they had previously estimated. A year ago BNEF has published forecast figures for 2020 of 167 MW and 74 MW for tidal and wave power, respectively.

Primarily, as Michael Liebreich, chairman of the BNEF advisory board, explains, fatigue among venture capital investors and the sheer difficulty of deploying devices in the harsh marine environment, are behind the revised outlook: “Tidal stream and wave power companies continue to face huge challenges.”

“It is possible to make equipment reliable, as the offshore oil and gas industry has shown, but it’s not cheap. And you have to put a huge amount of steel and concrete into the water, which is inherently expensive. It is still unclear whether this can be done at a cost competitive with offshore wind, let alone other clean energy generating technologies,” adds Liebreich.

However, on a more positive note, Angus McCrone, senior analyst at BNEF, noted: “Governments in countries such as the UK, France, Australia and Canada have identified tidal and wave as large opportunities not just for clean power generation, but also for creating local jobs and building national technological expertise. That continues to be the case, and we will see further progress over the rest of this decade.” He did add though that “caution is necessary”.

That’s true. Taking devices from small-scale demonstrator stage to a pre-commercial array is expensive and time-consuming. So it’s perhaps inevitable that, given the diversity of design within the MHK sector, some players would sooner or later fall by the wayside. And so it has come to pass. In the last year Oceanlinx and Wavebob have shut up shop, Wavegen was folded back into parent company Voith while AWS Ocean Energy and Ocean Power Technologies either scaled back activities or cancelled projects.

But there’s no industry in the world, particularly those pioneering new technology in a challenging environment, that has not suffered setbacks and failures. And while this endeavour is proving to be perhaps even more challenging and costly than some had envisaged, there is little doubt that many made more critical appraisals of the true cost and have continued to pursue their goals implacably.

Tidal stream is clearly the more advanced of the sectors. For example there are three projects currently in the project pipeline, in the Sound of Islay, Pentland Firth and the Skerries, off Anglesey, which are designed as multiple device arrays. In the wave energy sector, firms such as Aquamarine and Pelamis are among those which have pressed on with device and project development.

As the UK’s Renewable Energy Association (REA) Head of Marine Renewables, Dr Stephanie Merry, says: “Once arrays of multiple devices are proven at scale, which is just around the corner, we will also be able to tackle the finance challenge. There’ll be less perceived risk for investors and the economies of scale on the larger projects will make them economically competitive with other forms of low carbon generation.”

Whatever the final installation level reached in 2020, given the starting position – which currently represents a miniscule power output – it is clear that MHK technology will realise growth rates between now and 2020 that many clean energy sectors would be extremely envious of.

More significantly, given the almost limitless potential of marine and hydro kinetic energy, once the remaining engineering challengers have been overcome, there’s no obvious reason why that growth should not continue at staggeringly impressive rates for decades thereafter. So, it’s perhaps not the 2020 forecasts - at a shade over just five years away - that should carry much weight but the 2030 and 2050. By then MHK may well be an almost ubiquitous source of hydropower.

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