Navigating the waves: challenges in ocean energy development

Vyra Wu, DIGITIMES Asia, Taipei 0

Credit: IRENA

Countries worldwide have been ramping up their investments in marine energy development due to concerns about energy security.

Over the past decade, EU nations and private sectors have poured over EUR4 billion into research and pilot projects in ocean energy. The UK has dedicated GBP213 million to innovation and research in marine energy, while the US aims to provide US$141 million for ocean energy development by 2024. Australia has invested AUD111 million in ocean energy projects from 2012 to 2019.

According to the International Energy Agency's Ocean Energy Systems (IEA-OES), their 2050 roadmap for marine energy development envisions 300GW of capacity, with wave energy accounting for 180GW and tidal streams 120GW.

Taiwan, surrounded by oceans on all sides, possesses abundant ocean energy resources, including wave, tidal, and temperature difference energy, aims to complete phased demonstrations of marine energy from hundreds of kW to MW-scale by 2030, reaching a target of approximately 1.3-7.5 GW by 2050.

Despite the vast potential, there are challenges in the development of ocean energy technologies.

Taiwan's marine environment varies significantly, with wave heights ranging from half a meter to over ten meters, especially during typhoon season. This variability presents technical challenges in capturing wave energy efficiently while withstanding typhoon-force winds and waves.

Credit: ITRI

Credit: ITRI

Wen-Kai Weng, Professor of Ocean Engineering at National Taiwan Ocean University, believes that Taiwan should prioritize onshore wave energy development due to its lower costs and technical barriers. He suggested a phased approach to marine energy development, starting with onshore wave energy and gradually moving to more challenging offshore and tidal energy projects.

Taiwan has allocated a budget of NT$806~826 million for ocean energy in 2023-2024. Weng emphasized the importance of government support in funding research and development, collaborating with academia and industry, and providing incentives to accelerate the adoption of marine energy technologies.

Meanwhile, the Risk Society and Policy Research Center of National Taiwan University suggests that the research and development for each type of ocean energy—whether tidal, wave, current, or temperature difference—starts at different times and requires varying budgets. Additionally, the stages of industry development for each type differ. As a result, policy support should be customized based on the technological maturity and market growth of each energy source.

A report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) highlighted several challenges for ocean energy development, including complex and lengthy application processes, marine spatial conflicts, high technology costs, and infrastructure and supply chain issues.

Tai Chih-Yen, Associate Research Fellow at the Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research, underscored the importance of learning from Europe's experience in building a robust ocean energy industry supply chain as Taiwan aims to tap into this promising sector.

He emphasized the significance of learning from Europe's experience, pointing out key factors that have driven its progress. These include the establishment of extensive test sites and facilities like the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) in Scotland, strategic policies by the EU to guide ocean energy technologies, the role of demonstration projects in transitioning prototypes to utility-scale operations, the necessity of long-term policy support, and the development of frameworks to achieve commercial viability.

As of 2023, global marine energy capacity reached 527 MW, according to statistics from IRENA. Tidal range energy has nearly been at the commercial power plant level (TRL 8-9). France and South Korea, among other countries, had constructed tidal range power plants of capacities over 200 MW. Other types of ocean energy such as ocean thermal, currents, temperature, and salinity gradients are still under development (TRL 3-7).

Marine energy capacity worldwide in 2023, by country(MW)

Credit: Statistic

Credit: Statista

Tai noted that Taiwan currently lags behind Europe in ocean energy testing infrastructure. He suggested adopting a regional development approach, starting with small-scale test sites tailored to local conditions, such as ocean currents in eastern waters, waves in northeastern areas, and potential combustible ice applications in southwestern regions.

To establish comprehensive test sites, Taiwan needs to invest in supporting infrastructure like power transmission, data collection, communications systems, vessels, and a skilled workforce. Learning from Europe's experience in this pioneering industry could position Taiwan as a hub for ocean energy technology development and services in Asia.

The road ahead requires rebuilding Taiwan's supply chain, training a new generation of talent, and fostering cross-sector collaboration. By emulating Europe's strategic approach and leveraging regional cooperation, Taiwan can unlock the immense potential of its surrounding marine environments as a sustainable energy source.