China Pursues the Holy Grail of Ocean Energy, in a Massive Way

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Generating electricity from oceans is one of the oldest and hardest renewable-energy challenges. China is the latest country to try to bring the technology to life. According to the Wall Street Journal’s estimates, the rising superpower has invested about 160 billion dollars into tidal and wave technology and related projects. The Chinese government and firms are cooperating with technology companies like Lockheed Martin, Israel’s Eco Wave Power, the Netherlands’ Arcadis, and Singapore’s Atlantis Resources, in order to develop a variety of projects alongside its 11,000 mile coastline.

Transferring the energy from waves and tides into electricity has long been a holy grail for many in the US and Europe. So far, none of them has been very successful.

There are many challenges to overcome. First of all, the machines have to be strong enough to withstand the forces of ocean, but sensitive enough to harness the energy.  At the same time, it has to cause as little disruption to marine life as possible. Obviously, it is not easy to combine all of these demands, and the results of what has been tried so far can be seen off the Irish coast, where we can witness one of the few commercial marine power plants.

China’s ambitions are bigger and more radical. For example, the concept of massive T-shaped underwater “dynamic tidal walls” 30 kilometers long along the coast has been proposed. In theory, it would generate electric energy equivalent to two nuclear plants. The price-tag is massive 30 billion dollars. Also, it will not be unobtrusive, as some early research suggests. To deal with these problems, the Chinese are cooperating with Dutch companies that have experience with tidal walls that were used to prevent the Netherlands from being flooded by sea.

Here’s how it works:

China has already played with the idea of tidal and wave power and even installed some plants in the 1960s and 1970s, with no success. In 2008, three machines called Pelamis were deployed off the coast of Portugal, but the project collapsed after technical problems and bankruptcy of the owner.

The second generation of Pelamis is being tested now off the coast of Scotland by European energy company E.ON.

There is one project running in the United States too. It was lowered into the water in Eastport, Maine, in 2012.

The turbine did generate enough energy to power 25 homes despite its technical issues with loosened bolts and other problems.