The UK’s strong tidal resource offers an opportunity develop 11.5GW of tidal stream power capacity, explains RenewableUK’s Nathan Bennett

This week the government officially opened bidding for marine energy contracts, supported by new ringfenced funding. It was a landmark moment for the sector and the world.

Although many reported it as ‘a starting gun being fired for the sector’, just take a look at this video of Orbital’s O2 project up in Orkney and you can see that’s not true. The companies bidding into these auctions have worked tirelessly with engineers over many years to make their technological visions a demonstrable reality, with projects in the water already generating clean power to showcase to investors and government.

Their work hasn’t been purely practical either. In the aftermath of long debates about tidal lagoons earlier in the decade, they had a PR mountain to climb to make clear the unique benefits of a technology which sounded similar to tidal stream, but was fundamentally very different. There are no sea walls. No rise or fall of the tide to consider. Tidal stream devices stand alone and use the rush and flow of the tides, like offshore wind farms underwater.

Great credit goes to the MPs who supported them in making the case to government. Richard Graham, the MP for Gloucester who chaired the Marine APPG, is an unstoppable force. Bringing Ministers up to Orkney to see the technology first-hand, encouraging companies to showcase their UK supply chain, their rapid cost reduction to date, their export potential, the implications of the sector’s growth for economic regeneration of coastal communities, their immense public popularity. All these assets captured the attention of government, outlined well by Adam Vaughan. If you want a case study for how to be an effective Shadow Minister, Alan Brown, the SNP’s Energy Lead, mentioned tidal stream in twelve different debates in Parliament in the five months leading up to the government’s announcement this summer.

The government has done so much more than fire a starting gun for the sector. Britain is supposedly full of bright engineers who find grants for a prototype of their design or a period of testing, but their technologies fall into the ‘valley of death’ between this early stage and commercialisation. By establishing a route to market for commercial tidal stream, the UK is giving the sector a chance to learn from doing, innovate and start to benefit from economies of scale. The sector can now take the same path of cost reduction wind and solar have, with global implications.

Just as the UK’s strong tidal resource offers the opportunity for our country to develop 11.5GW of tidal stream, there are energy-hungry coastal economies around the world watching our sector develop with excitement. As we speak, a factory in Edinburgh is building devices for Nova Innovation to export to Nova Scotia in Canada. The same company is actively exploring opportunities in Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populated nation formed of 17,500 islands. Japan has an order book for the technology, and the Philippines, the USA, South Korea and Australia look promising.

Like the government’s backing of floating wind, there is a huge self-interest for the country in being ahead of the global race. If the UK doesn’t lead that race, undoubtedly someone else will, and they’ll reap the export rewards. But in tidal stream, although there are other countries with competing developments, this feels like more than a plan to make sure we’re dominating the future global market. As the IEA (International Energy Agency) has made clear, we are a world striving to ramp up the massive amount of clean energy we need for net zero fast enough to avoid catastrophic climate change. It looks like the UK is going to give everyone an extra tool to help the transition, at a critical time.

Nathan Bennett is head of public affairs at RenewableUK.

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