Getting Energy from the Ocean: Tapping Dispersed Knowledge
(Coordinated collaboration could speed development in complex industry) (832)
By Jessica Morey
Estimates suggest that power generated by tidal waves and streams could meet upwards of 15 to 20 percent of global demand for low-carbon energy. Hydrokinetic (wave, tidal, and current) power technologies could harness these widely available major energy sources - and mitigate climate change - in developed and developing countries alike.
Despite the large commercial opportunity, marine energy faces significant hurdles. Costs are much higher than for conventional and some renewable power sources. Moreover, no single technology has emerged as an industry leader, and more than 75 developers are competing globally for limited public and private investments.
Other significant challenges have slowed marine energy development and kept costs high:
.. Testing in expensive, risky, and harsh marine environments
.. Accessing the power grid from remote locations
.. Managing unknown environmental impacts
.. Wading through regulatory thickets involving multiple federal and local agencies
In addition, the industry is dominated by a large number of small start-up companies, contributing to a lack of information-sharing and "reinventing the wheel." These small companies also frequently lack adequate funding to bring their marine technology devices to market.
Applying Distributed Innovation
The question for policymakers is how to catalyze rapid cost reductions and accelerate the market to overcome these barriers. The answer could be an internationally coordinated market acceleration approach that taps distributed knowledge and experience, such as the distributed innovation (DI) approach outlined in the "International Climate Technology Innovation" article in this publication. This approach would support fast learning and could help lower costs dramatically.
"There is an immediate need for everyone to work in tandem."- UK Marine Action Plan 2010
A report by the United Kingdom Renewables Advisory Board recommends "a more collaborative approach to [research and development] projects between industry, academia and [g]overnment, with pro-active and closer management of [these] projects. This will help ensure that projects are focusing on tackling the correct problems, that opportunities for information exchange are taken, that projects are generating relevant research information, and that as many results as possible are published."
An international distributed innovation approach to accelerate the marine energy market should be encouraged for a number of reasons:
.. Any setback with a particular device negatively affects the entire industry. Because the industry is so small, failures tend to stand out disproportionally to the technical challenge. One device developer noted, "every time there is a failure you lose a couple of months across the whole industry."
.. The capital requirements to advance the industry are huge, estimated to be on the order of U.S. $750 billion by 2020, and costs have proven to be higher than expected.
.. The marine energy market, like all clean energy technologies, is global. Developers are working outside their own countries, and this will continue.
Collaborative approaches can remove market barriers and accelerate the marine energy industry in areas such as:
.. Modeling - Improved computer models to assess device performance and costs could significantly reduce development costs, and the information could be shared internationally between test facilities and university laboratories.
.. Testing facilities - Currently there are no open sea test facilities in the United States, and only a few sites are being developed in the UK and Ireland. Sharing experience and skills across countries could rapidly improve the performance and costs of testing facilities.
.. Device performance and cost data - The industry, investors, and the public sector need more cost and performance data to make sound private business decisions and give the public sector confidence in its investment.
.. "Balance of systems" technologies - Cost reduction can be found not only in design improvements, which make up only 20 percent of installed marine energy costs, but also in balance of systems (BOS) - improved anchoring, better electrical infrastructure, and innovative ways to conduct installation, operation, and maintenance.
.. Partnerships - Encouraging these across the industry, especially between small developers and larger engineering firms and utilities with financial resources and project development experience, could greatly accelerate technological development.
.. Managing environmental and regulatory risks - Collaboration and cooperation would reduce the effort required for environmental assessments and other regulatory processes. A U.S. study concluded that many industry participants "found the lack of knowledge or lack of access to [existing environmental and regulatory] information just as limiting as the lack of funding for [new] studies."
The marine energy industry faces a number of hurdles that could be overcome through a coordinated international DI effort to accelerate the market by tapping into solutions globally. Despite the promising results of this approach in other technology areas, no project is yet underway to accelerate the marine energy market globally through open innovation. The U.S. Department of Energy, however, has indicated interest in starting an international marine collaboration.
Jessica Morey is a Project Director with Clean Energy Group. She works primarily on CEG's International Climate Change Technology Innovation Initiative, as well as assisting CEG's Clean Energy States Alliance (CESA), a multistate coalition of state programs working together to support clean energy technologies and markets.