A joined-up approach for ocean energy in the next financial framework

By Andreea Strachinescu, Head of Unit, Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, European Commission, (pictured)
Autumn 2018

Andreea Strachinescu, Head of Unit, Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, European CommissionNew technologies are now allowing mankind to realise the potential of the 71% of the planet's surface covered by oceans for the clean energy we will need if we are to avoid a climate catastrophe.

It has been estimated that wave energy can provide 29,500 TWh/year for the planet as a whole, 4,100 TWh/yr of which is in Europe. Tidal energy, either from the difference in level of high and low tide (tidal range) or the horizontal flow (tidal stream) can generate 106 locations with a strong tidal stream potential in Europe, which have been identified, together offering 48 TWh/yr. Approximately 15% of the total solar energy falling incident on the oceans is retained as thermal energy and stored as heat in its upper layers. Thermal energy conversion (OTEC) can take advantage of the temperature difference between this upper layer and cooler waters beneath. Estimates of the total potential global OTEC energy resource that could be extracted without having a major impact on the thermal characteristics of the world's oceans range between 30,000 and 90,000 TWh/year.

The research and development necessary to harness these resources is now taking off within a European blue research community that is providing insights and technologies to move forward across a whole spectrum of challenges. The EU has played a major role in supporting this research, with approximately €350 million a year from successive Framework Programmes. All of this is supporting a world-leading European industry. Europe already leads in cruise shipping and dredging vessels. Many leading companies in underwater technology have developed round the petroleum fields of the North Sea. Much propulsion or navigation equipment in Asian shipyards comes from Europe. Now Europe is at the forefront of offshore renewable energy - floating wind farms, tidal energy.

But, we cannot stand still. We need to build on this. Business innovation in the areas of offshore energy, aquaculture, biotechnology, data services, seabed activities builds on insights gained in research. We need to join everything up. The challenges are similar and lessons learned in one domain can be applied in another. Underwater robotics, lightweight materials and anti-biofouling coatings are reducing the cost and increasing the reliability of offshore installations for both renewable energy and marine transport. Understanding how DNA affects species characteristics is already revolutionising pharmaceuticals and fish farming. It promises to deliver biofuel from algae without diminishing precious land or freshwater resources. This was recognised in the Commission's 2014 Communication on Blue Innovation.


"The research and development necessary to harness these resources is now taking off within a European blue research community that is providing insights and technologies to move forward across a whole spectrum of challenges."


In the next Multi-Annual Financial Framework setting out the Commissions' proposal for spending in the years 2021-2028, presented in early May this year, the Commission has indicated that research and innovation will be boosted compared to the present Horizon2020 programme, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the total. Within this programme, the Commission is looking how to stimulate and increase cross-sectoral cooperation between the different strands of the marine and maritime domain.

And it is looking at improving coordination between EU programmes and national programmes. For example dialogue and collaboration for Europe's energy transition is structured through the Strategic Energy Technology (SET) Plan. According to the SET Plan, clean energy investments on research and innovation from the private sector are estimated at 77% of the total, while investments from national budgets are at 18% and the EU level support at 5%. This shows the importance of creating synergies and of triggering the private investments that will contribute to reach our energy and climate objectives and promote EU competitiveness.

All this is leading to increased pressure for sea space. Unlike on land, different economic activities, mussel farming and wind farms for instance, can share the same waters; The EU now obliges authorities to draw up plans defining what can and what cannot take place in each area. These outline permissions then reduce the time taken for licensing and thus reduce risk.

Then deciding where to deploy these new structures requires knowledge of parameters such as seafloor topography, sediments, waves and salinity. Ensuring that the environmental impact is with acceptable limits requires knowledge of the distribution and diversity of marine life. The EU's European Marine Observation and Data Network (EMODnet) has brought together marine data held by hundreds of organisations into seamless digital seabed maps that reduce the time and effort needed to deliver these plans and assessments.

Better communication and joint planning are not only needed across the different research themes but also between industry, education and research. Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs) have been very successful in bringing these sectors together in the energy domain. The European Institute of Technology has proposed a new one in the marine and maritime area. This would deliver the cross-fertilisation, expertise, knowledge and ideas that industry needs to stay ahead of the game by providing educational courses in entrepreneurship, acceleration of promising ideas and joint projects between industry and academia.

The last piece of the jigsaw is money. Financial institutions and fund managers are now looking at the opportunities. Many see that in a planet with increasing population and diminishing terrestrial resources, investing in the blue economy will, in the long term, be a good financial bet. The European Investment Bank and the European Fund for Strategic Investment have already helped the offshore wind energy industry reach a point that it is competitive with dirtier fossil fuel technologies. They are now looking at some of the smaller companies that provide services all across the blue economy and that will drive the innovation needed to realise the promise of the ocean.

©European Union, 2018
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