Blue Energy Revolution Comes of Age
By Paul Brown
The amount of energy generated by tides and waves in the last decade has increased tenfold. Now governments around the world are planning to scale up these ventures to tap into the oceans' vast store of blue energy.
Although in 2019 the total amount of energy produced by "blue power" would have been enough to provide electricity to only one city the size of Paris, even that was a vast increase on the tiny experiments being carried out 10 years earlier.
Now countries across the world with access to the sea are beginning to exploit all sorts of new technologies and are intending to scale them up to bolster their attempts to go carbon-neutral.
Blue energy takes many forms. One of the most difficult technically is harnessing the energy of waves with devices that produce electricity. After several false starts many successful prototypes are now being trialed for commercial use. Other experiments exploit the tidal range – using the power of rapidly rising and falling tidal streams to push water through turbines.
The most commercially successful strategies so far use underwater turbines, similar to wind turbines, to exploit the tidal currents in coastal regions.
More ambitious but along the same lines are attempts to capture the energy from the immense ocean currents that move vast quantities of water around the planet.
Also included in blue energy is ocean thermal energy conversion, which exploits the temperature differences between solar energy stored as heat in the upper ocean layers and colder seawater, generally at a depth below 1000 meters.
A variation on this is to use salinity gradients, the difference between the salt content of the sea and fresh water entering from a large river system. Some of these schemes are being used to produce fresh drinking water for dry regions rather than electricity.
The potential from all these energy sources is so great that an organization called Ocean Energy Systems (OES), an offshoot of the International Energy Agency, is pooling all the research in a bid to achieve large-scale deployment.
There are now 24 countries in the OES, including China, India, the U.S., most European nations with a coastline, Japan, Australia and South Africa. Most of them have already deployed some blue energy schemes and are hoping to scale them up to full commercial use in the next decade.
As with wind and solar when they were being widely developed ten years ago, energy from the oceans is currently more expensive than fossil fuels. But as the technologies are refined the costs are coming down.
Already China has encouraged tidal stream energy by offering a feed-in tariff three times the price of fossil fuels, similar to the rate used in many countries to launch solar and wind power. One Chinese company is already finding this incentive enough to feed power into the grid and make a profit.
Among the leading countries developing these technologies are Canada and the United Kingdom, the two countries with the highest tides in the world. Canada has a number of tidal energy schemes on its Atlantic coast in Nova Scotia, with several competing companies testing different prototypes.
Scotland, which has enormous potential because of its many islands and tidal currents, has the largest tidal array of underwater turbines in the world. The turbine output has exceeded expectations, and the MeyGen company is planning to vastly increase the number of installations.
But this is only one of more than 20 projects in the UK, some still in the research and development stage, but many already being scaled up for deployment at special testing grounds in Scotland's Orkney islands and the West of England.
OES chairman Henry Jeffrey, from the University of Edinburgh, said the group's new annual report communicates the sizable global effort to identify commercialization pathways for ocean energy technologies.
Both Canada and the U.S. can now see big potential, and political leaders across Europe have identified ocean energy as an essential component in meeting decarbonization targets, fostering economic growth and creating future employment opportunities.
Lower Costs Essential
"Our latest report underlines the considerable international support for the marine renewable sector as leading global powers attempt to rebalance energy usage and limit global warming. The start of this new decade carries considerable promise for ocean energy," he said.
However, Jeffrey warned that while the sector continued to take huge strides forward, there were several challenges ahead "centred around affordability, reliability, installability, operability, funding availability, capacity building and standardization.
"In particular, significant cost reductions are required for ocean energy technologies to compete with other low-carbon technologies."
Currently the cost of wind power, taking into account construction costs over the turbines' lifetime, is being quoted as around €0.8-10 (one eighth to one tenth of a Euro, about £0.07-9 or US$0.9-11) per kilowatt hour, but this is still going down.
The European target is to get tidal stream energy down to €0.10 by 2030 and wave power down to €0.15, which would also make them competitive with fossil fuels if gas and coal were obliged to pay for capturing and storing the carbon dioxide they produce.
Reposted with permission from Climate News Network.
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When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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