China Wants to Make a Splash in Ocean Energy

Europe is in the lead, but China is increasing investment in large-scale tidal projects

2 min read
China Wants to Make a Splash in Ocean Energy
Illustration: ARCADIS NL

The UK has some serious competition in the race to tap the ocean for energy.

China is increasing spending on tidal power, according to the Wall St. Journal and its largest project could outmatch any planned development in Europe. Currently, the UK is the leader in marine power, with a goal of 2000 megawatts installed by 2020

The largest potential project in China is a US $30 billion tidal wall that could have an installed power base of about a gigawatt. The dam-like structure has turbines with curved blades that allow marine life to swim through while harnessing the energy in the water. The project has domestic and international backing, including from the Dutch government and eight Dutch companies, according to the Wall St. Journal.

Beijing has provided about $3 million for feasibility studies for the tidal wall, but the full project wouldn’t be built for at least a decade. The turbine wall would run perpendicular to the coast and then extend out in a T-shape, covering 30 kilometers. (Tidal currents on run parallel to China's coast.)

But there are other projects in the works. International firms, such as Lockheed Martin, are also entering joint ventures in China in the ocean power market. Lockheed Martin is developing a 10-megawatt ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) facility off the coast of southern China that is expected to cost US $300 to $500 million.

That technology takes advantage of the temperature difference in tropical waters between the warmer surface and the cold, deep water. In most OTEC systems, ammonia is vaporized as it passes through a heat exchanger containing the warm water. The vapor spins a turbine and then the ammonia is condensed using the colder water.

Overall, Beijing has spent about $160 million since 2010 on ocean energy, compared to Europe’s private investment of US$825 million since 2007, according to the Wall St. Journal. Tidal and wave power are attractive technologies because they can provide baseload power, which intermittent solar and wind power cannot do.

Despite the considerable investment, large-scale ocean power plants in any region have remained elusive. All tidal and wave technologies face considerable challenges, such as surviving in harsh, salty waters and being cost-competitive with other renewable energy options.

Scotland has found that tidal energy could supply half of its power needs, and is backing that up with the Saltire Prize, which will award $15.8 million in 2017 to one of the wave and tidal energy companies competing for the prize

A few larger scale tidal projects are starting to move forward, although examples are still few and far between. A 250-MW tidal plant in Wales’s Swansea Bay recently had its plans approved by the government and is expected to begin construction next year. In South Korea, there are plans for an 810-MW plant, although there are environmental concerns.

The increased interest in marine energy from China could not only quicken development, but also open the possibility for technology disputes as has happened with wind and solar.

"Without a doubt, we will see a rise in the number of disputes between Chinese and foreign companies over renewables technology patents, including marine energy," Xiang Wang, a Beijing-based lawyer with Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe, told the Wall St. Journal.

Although disputes will likely arise, there are countless technologies vying for an opportunity to tap the inherent power of the seas and oceans, and more involvement from deep-pocketed governments and companies should only accelerate the pace to find commercial, cost-effective solutions.

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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