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The demand for renewable energy sources and the desire to achieve net zero emissions has contributed to a growth in research on ocean energy development in Europe (Europe in this article meaning the EU and its nation states). However, considerable work still needs to be done on a national and European Union level to achieve sustainability goals. The Paris Agreement provides that 20% of energy consumption in Europe must be harvested from renewable sources by 2020. In 2018, the share of renewable energy consumption stood at 18.9%, however the main sectors contributing to this growth were wind and solar energy.

This article argues we should pay greater attention to the potential from the ocean energy sector, which harvests power from sea water (through tidal streams and waves) to produce low carbon energy. Europe is currently the leading producer of ocean energy installations, however, since 2016 the rest of the world has begun to catch up and a lack of financial support by European nations has stunted growth in its capacity.

The market for ocean energy remains largely untapped, and advanced energy sources in this area have been overshadowed by offshore wind energy, which currently make up most of Europe’s blue energy consumption. If Europe were able to deploy those technologies it could help diversify the EU’s renewable energy industry, contribute to greater economic growth and increased sustainable consumption in the future.

The potential for ocean energy exploitation in Europe greatly exceeds forecasted energy consumption levels in the present and future. The industrialisation of ocean energy is significant, and EU Maritime Policy has initiated the Blue Growth Strategies in the pursuit of developing a “blue economy”. These initiatives intend to increase the EU’s comparative advantage in a growing global ocean energy market, increase employment opportunities in costal areas and reduce Europe’s dependence on energy imports, which grew considerably by 14.8% from 2007-2017, which threatens the geopolitical independence of Europe. If there is further development of ocean energy initiatives going forward, ocean energy can be instrumental in the pursuit of European energy independence.

Tidal energy is already developing considerably, as it is highly predictable and technology and design approaches display growing consensus. Tidal stream turbine technologies (TS) have been fostered throughout the continent of Europe, particularly in nations bordering the Atlantic Ocean such as the UK, Norway and France. TS has struggled to adapt to countries bordering the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas, as tidal ranges are considerably lower in these areas.  However, the possibility of manufacturing devices that harvest energy in weaker tides can expand economies of scale in the future. The convergence of TS has advanced to a greater extent, as research and development (R&D) investments are sufficient, supply chains are expanding and the reliability of maintenance in extreme weather conditions are stable. The potential of installing more 100GW capacity of ocean energy in Europe by 2050 can successfully meet 10% of energy consumption needs, and can result in the creation of 400,000 jobs in new industries. Nonetheless, competing countries such as China and Canada are catching up, and Europe indeed faces the challenge of further developing this sector to maintain its comparative advantage and increase renewable energy exports.

By comparison, the commercialisation of wave energy has been less promising. The development of Wave Energy Converters (WEC), devices that convert kinetic wave energy into power, has been a process raked by financial and technical issues. The survivability of WEC’s in high energy potential locations is low, and technologies have been limited to smaller-scale markets, for example in offshore oil and gas plants, where they contribute to power supply. Importantly, R&D failures have produced hurdles towards design consensus, and the need for technology-specific funds and performance indicators to improve development and dampen the risks for investors is crucial going forward. Some smaller wave energy supply chains and research ventures have already begun to emerge in coastal areas, such as in the Basque Country. Potential for growth in this area soon is likely, however further prioritization of technology development at this stage is crucial to pursuing productive capacity.

What therefore needs to be done? For wave energy, an increase in funding on infrastructure is crucial, as this alone accounts for 10-15% of ocean energy expenditures, and funding must be redirected to improving market expansion beyond small-scale deployment.

Recent developments for market expansion include The Strategic Initiative for Ocean Energy (SI Ocean) , which was a two year project spearheaded by the EU in 2013. This initiative focused on creating a unified strategy for ocean energy deployment, particularly in the Atlantic Arc area. The results of this project include an agreement on Energy Resource Assessment between 100 stakeholders (including those in national governments, private investors and manufacturing), and the development of market deployment strategies between national authorities and policymakers. The initiative consolidated a European-wide strategy of commercialising ocean energy across the Atlantic Arc, and kickstarted the cross-national integration of stakeholders. Projects like this one must be developed to promote the industrial roll out of ocean energy technologies and expand a blue economy in Europe.

In the case of tidal energy, the implementation of market push mechanisms on a national scale can further promote commercialisation, as its production has surpassed the stage of technological development. These mechanisms include the use of investment funds, pilot projects and proposals, development budgets, etc. These strategies can expand the market for this sector, and allow adequate promotion and demand for technologies, on par with policy and action plans.

The opportunity for increased funding on a national level, as well as European-wide initiatives for both tidal and wave energy is of great importance in harnessing the power of our oceans and developing new and profitable renewable energy sources. The prioritization for the development of ocean energy in Europe is crucial for it achieving sustainability goals in the future and could foster the creation of new industries that could reduce import reliance, cut carbon emissions and induce economic growth across the continent.

There is great promise for Europe to transition to a cleaner energy industry by 2050, and the ocean energy sector can certainly be conducive to such a change, if deployed.


Amirah Karmali is an intern at Bright Blue. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Bright Blue.

Image: Matt Hardy