There is no time to ignore the clockwork reliability of tidal power - Rebecca Foster

War in Ukraine has provoked a surge of energy strategising across Europe, including our own upcoming British Energy Security Strategy, due to be announced this week.

The war in Ukraine has provoked a surge of energy strategising across Europe, encapsulated by our own upcoming British Energy Security Strategy, which is due to be announced tomorrow.

The strategy is hotly anticipated, because though just three percent of our gas comes from Russia, rocketing global market prices have nevertheless left Britain’s households struggling to make ends meet. The wholesale price of gas in January 2022 was almost four times higher than in early 2021.

Given this crisis, there is now political consensus that we must secure affordable, homegrown energy and that incoming strategy must be a crucial step towards that goal.

Rebecca Foster, energy and environment researcher with the Bright Blue think tank. PIC: Contributed.

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Recently, Boris Johnson listed tidal power as part of the process of helping to end our reliance on Putin’s Russia, yet this industry has not received the same level of support other forms of renewable energy have. Although the UK Government defines Britain’s energy policy, planning is a devolved matter,with the Scottish government having the ability to shape the direction of energy generation in Scotland by approving or refusing new projects.

And today – against the backdrop of conflict, a cost of energy crisis and looming climate catastrophe – there is not the luxury to not explore what tidal power could offer.

Indeed, Britain’s coastal terrain might have the potential to become an incredible indigenous asset, boasting roughly half of the entire European tidal resource, with Scotland home to 25 percent of those resources. In fact, tidal stream and wave power are estimated to have the potential to deliver an impressive 20 percent of the UK’s electricity needs. Given the growing pressure to meet future energy demands, it is increasingly important to assess whether tidal power is a pragmatic option for our renewable energy future that merits serious consideration.

Scotland is home to the UK's two commercially operated tidal stations but more must be done to harness the clockwork reliability of the tides given the fundamental questions on energy security, writes Rebecca Foster. PIC: EMEC.

Certainly, tides come in and out like clockwork, making the power they generate a predictable and renewable source of energy. Additionally, when compared to other forms of energy, tidal power’s lifespan is around four times that of wind or solar farms, with tidal barrages generating power for around 100 years. Meanwhile, nuclear reactors reach their scheduled retirement after about 35 years.

Developing more tidal power might also be an opportunity for new job creation in coastal areas. This would be particularly beneficial for Scottish coastal communities, which are home to roughly 40 percent of Scotland’s total population.

Furthermore, though some worry about the threat tidal power poses to marine animals and their habitats exists, there is strong scientific consensus that the damage to the physical environment caused by tidal power is relatively small. Importantly, that consensus has seen tidal power projects win support from prominent environmental organisations including the RSPB, Friends of the Earth and the WWF.

However, despite tidal power’s economic and energy potential, green credentials, and the existence of numerous proposed sites, Scotland hosts just two commercial tidal power stations in operation. In fact, these are the only two such stations that are commercially operating in the whole of the UK: MeyGen on the Pentland Firth and Bluemull Sound on the Shetland Islands.

A key barrier to the UK developing its tidal power potential has been cost. In 2018, the proposed Swansea Bay tidal lagoon, with a sticker price of £1.3 billion, was cancelled after cost calculations found that it would take just £400 million for offshore wind to generate the

equivalent amount of energy. But one of the reasons that tidal power is so expensive next to wind is because of the high level of government support that offshore wind projects have received.

Since 2016, the Government has supported offshore wind through the Contract for Difference (CfD) scheme. The scheme provides sustained and significant subsidies for wind energy projects, enabling rapid cost reductions. Consequently, the strike price (the guaranteed wholesale value of the energy) of offshore wind energy projects has reduced from approximately £117/MWh in 2015 to £40/MWh in 2019. In comparison, the estimated

strike price of tidal stream energy in 2019 was around £250/MWh.

By contrast, the Government’s efforts to support our tidal power industry fall short. It is true that, in November 2021, the UK government announced a ring-fenced cash boost of £20million per year for tidal stream electricity through the CfD scheme. Yet, that very same announcement saw offshore wind allocated a £200 million pot, with £24 million a year ring-fenced for floating offshore wind projects.

Now, while the Government is in the throes of devising its new British Energy Security Strategy, using a range of technologies and measures to steer us through this crisis, it should be recognised that 79 percent of the public overwhelmingly support wave and tidal energy, compared to only 34 percent of the public who support nuclear fusion energy.

This public support, and the need to build up a varied, resilient base of homegrown renewable energy sources, makes it timely for the Government to seriously investigate whether we can turn the natural resource that laps our shores into reliable, value-for-money power, as we have successfully achieved with offshore wind. The upcoming British Energy Security Strategy is an opportunity for the Government to announce such intentions and

begin consultations to establish whether we should build Britain’s tidal power portfolio and what that could look like.

-Rebecca Foster is an energy an environment Researcher at the think tank Bright Blue

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