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28 November 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 2:06pm

How the oceans can save the world

Wind and wave technologies are leading the fight against climate change, writes the professor of ocean engineering at the University of Plymouth and director of the Supergen Offshore Renewable Energy Hub

By Deborah Greaves

As an island nation, the sea is part of our very being. It has shaped our coastline over millennia and we continue to rely on it for much of our day-to-day existence. Harnessing that power in a way that can benefit us now and in the future is a constant, but crucial, challenge. One of the key things we need to do is change the way we use and deliver energy. Over generations, we have become used to relying on fossil fuels to power how we live, work, and play. And while the demand for clean and sustainable sources of energy is now recognised, making it a reality will require a seismic cultural shift.

As we build towards that, offshore renewables are becoming the subject of increased focus. Offshore wind is already making significant contributions to the national energy mix, and we hope that marine energy – wave and tidal – will one day do the same.

Offshore wind has made dramatic progress in price reduction and ambition in the last year. Its development has the advantage of a similarly scalable design to its onshore counterpart, and offshore wind farms have sprung up around the UK. However, the harsh environments into which wave and tidal energy systems would need to operate have arguably hindered their technological development.

Offshore wind, wave, and tidal face common challenges, such as surviving environmental action placed on them and managing potential impacts on marine ecosystems. But that should not detract from their potential and there is little doubt that we need to, and can, exploit this resource within the coming decades.

The UK’s target for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 puts this into context, with a clear imperative to develop our future energy system to be resilient and diverse. It is the combination of offshore renewables that can help to achieve this goal.

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The tidal sector is already more advanced than wave and the TIGER project, in which the University of Plymouth is a key partner, is a really exciting development. It will see turbines submerged offshore to harness the energy of tidal currents, which will then be converted into electricity. This could prove a real game changer in terms of converting the UK’s research excellence into practical benefits. Such projects could in effect smooth the path for wave energy to attain a similar stage of development, and I believe the main challenges there include resolving reliability and survivability.

Whenever we talk about offshore renewables, we need to appreciate that investment does not just represent a financial cost. With human impacts on the planet in ever starker focus, and increasingly strict targets around addressing climate change, there is a wider value to the planet.

When it comes to offshore renewables, we at the University of Plymouth are at the forefront of turning this aspiration into reality. Our leadership of the £9m Supergen ORE Hub, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and other high-profile projects, means we are setting the agenda when it comes to innovation and industry collaboration across the sector. And working with colleagues across the UK, we possess the expertise with which to meet this global challenge head on.

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