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UK Lagoon Project Set to Harness the Changing Tides of Renewable Energy

As President John F. Kennedy so eloquently said in 1963, in response to critics of a proposed dam project: "A rising tide lifts all boats."

A current case in point that could significantly benefit the clean energy space: Tidal lagoons — an ancient, natural source of potential power that can be harnessed sustainably for the 21st century and beyond.

Our oceans remain largely uncharted — with only roughly 5 percent explored by man — but the potential of the patterns and movements of the tides in mitigating energy resource depletion worldwide is only now beginning to be tapped. Data about the ocean’s patterns have been collated since the 1860s and that cumulative information is at-the-ready as a new/old source of renewable energy.

The basics of the harbor-type structures for tidal lagoons are simple: As the tide goes in or out, the water passes through hydro turbines and generates electricity that can be channeled into a grid to provide electricity for surrounding areas.

UK tech startup Tidal Lagoon Power (TLP) is pioneering the concept in Swansea Bay. The team says its mission is “to drive a critical change in the UK's energy mix by developing infrastructure to harness natural power from the rise and fall of the tides.”

As its website describes: “Our first project, Tidal Lagoon Swansea Bay, establishes a scalable blueprint for our programme. Beyond this, we aim to develop, construct and operate a fleet of tidal lagoons to meet up to 8% of UK electricity demand. This fleet will exploit the opportunities that tidal lagoons offer for social, economic and environmental transformation and we will progress projects that contribute positively in each area.”

In this video, TLP explains how the technology is scaling low-carbon power costs effectively.

The 7.35m diameter turbines planned for Swansea will be encased in concrete, continuously submerged, de-watered and cleaned regularly, and in return, the lagoon’s 320MW install capacity will generate up to 14 hours of predictable energy generation daily. Swansea Bay will operate for 120 years and is set to start power production in the UK in 2020.

Critics of the project cite the high electricity costs required to get it up and running, but TLP defends Swansea Bay as proof of concept that tidal power at scale will produce affordable power. As TLP CEO Mark Shorrock told the Guardian last year: “Full-scale tidal lagoon infrastructure gives the UK an opportunity to generate electricity from our amazing tidal range at a cost comparable to fossil fuel or nuclear generation. We have the best tidal resource in Europe and the second best worldwide. We now have a sustainable way to make the most of this natural advantage.”

Spurred by TLP’s progress, countries including France, Canada, India and China are experimenting with replicating the model.

We spoke with Ioan Jenkins, Development Director at Tidal Lagoon Swansea Bay Plc., to learn more about the project.

What makes tidal lagoons such as Swansea Bay such exciting prospects for sustainable energy generation?

Ioan Jenkins: Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon is a game-changer — a scalable blueprint — paving the way for a fleet of lagoons that can work in harmony with nature to help secure the nation's electricity for generations to come. In a single step, this pilot project can take us to low-cost, renewable energy on a nuclear scale. By using our greatest natural resource, we now have the potential to help transform our carbon-based industrial economy and the UK’s energy mix, through the development of this truly sustainable, low-carbon energy infrastructure.

What are some of the challenges of scaling the Swansea Bay technology?

IJ: The Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon is the first large-scale attempt in Great Britain to harness the power of the tides. The core ingredients are now effort, nerve and focus but we also need to release the £1.3tn of capital that is currently allocated for new energy infrastructure in the UK to build zero-carbon infrastructure.

Tidal power is not new. Tide mills date back to the middle ages but the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon is the first attempt in Great Britain to harness the power of the tides and to do it in a manner that works with nature. Tides are inherently predictable — unlike other forms of renewable energy, there is a consistent source of kinetic energy caused by regular tidal cycles that are influenced by the dance between the sun and the moon.

Are there other beta projects?

IJ: We are also progressing plans for the UK’s first full-scale tidal lagoon between Cardiff and Newport with the aim of submitting a planning application in 2017. Having submitted our Environmental Impact Assessment scoping report in March of this year, the project will have an installed capacity, dependent on final design, of between 1,800MW and 2,800MW. This will give a reliable annual output of 4 TWh to 6 TWh — comfortably enough low-carbon electricity to power every home in Wales throughout its 120-year life.

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