Andrea Copping: The Latest on Marine Energy Projects

We hear a lot about solar and wind power, but a renewable source of clean energy that continues to be largely untapped is the ocean. According to the US Energy Information Administration, the annual energy potential of waves off the coasts of the United States is 2.64 trillion kilowatt hours, or the equivalent of about 66% of this country’s electricity generation in 2020. Over the past two decades, many marine energy projects have sprung up around the world aiming to harness this seemingly limitless resource. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to Andrea Copping, a senior research scientist at the Pacific Northwest Laboratory, to catch the latest on wave energy. We learn about the various technologies, the benefits these projects present, potential regulatory hurdles, and the kinds of harmful effects they may have on marine life.

Narrator  0:01  This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Andrea Copping  0:15  I’m pretty bullish on this as a coastal system for small communities. And I believe as we get better with the technology, and we can bring the price down, I think they can be there right alongside offshore wind and solar providing to the national grids around the world.

Narrator  0:35  We hear a lot about solar and wind power. But a renewable source of clean energy that continues to be largely untapped is the ocean. According to the US Energy Information Administration, the annual energy potential of waves off the coast of the United States is 2.6 4 trillion kilowatt hours or the equivalent of about 66% of this country’s electricity generation in 2020. Over the past two decades, many marine energy projects have sprung up around the world, aiming to harness this seemingly limitless resource. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to Andrea Copping a senior research scientist at the Pacific Northwest laboratory to catch the latest on wave energy. We learned about the various technologies, the benefits, these projects present, potential regulatory hurdles, and the kinds of harmful effects they may have on marine life.

Alex Wise  1:53  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Andrea Copping. She is a senior research scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and a Distinguished Faculty Fellow at the University of Washington. Andrea, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Andrea Copping  2:07  Thank you. Glad to be here, Alex.

Alex Wise  2:10  So you’ve been studying marine energy for quite some time. And there are a lot of different types of ways to tackle this untapped potential source for energy. And there’s projects underway in places like Korea, Canada, Denmark, Italy, I want to dive into some of those soon. But why don’t you first kind of define what is marine energy, and then maybe kind of give us a snapshot of some of your latest research.

Andrea Copping  2:41  Great – happy to. By marine energy, we mean generating power from any aspect of seawater, it could be moving seawater, like tides, and waves, or ocean currents, or even the gradients in temperature and salinity. And we’re not including offshore wind in this. So it’s everything in the water. And as we try to develop this newest entry into the low carbon portfolio for many nations of renewables, we realize there’s a necessity to protect the oceans. At the same time, the animals, the habitats, even the systems that run the ocean, make it operate as it is. And what my group and I have been doing for over a decade now is trying to anticipate those potential environmental effects. Understand the research that’s been done, what do we know what still needs to be done? And pursue that research? So we look at a variety of what we call stressor receptor interactions, what are the parts of the system stressing the animals and the habitats, and the receptors, which are the animals and the habitats? And so we try to get very specific about what parts of devices, what parts of systems? Is it noise? Is it electromagnetic fields? Is it the whirling blades of a tidal turbine might affect the marine animals and habitats?

Alex Wise  4:03  Before we discuss the effects on the animals themselves? Why don’t you give us a little bit of an overview of the different types of technologies that are being used or proposed around the world?

Andrea Copping  4:16  Yeah, for sure. So the technologies really go with the different pieces of the ocean, movement of water. So if we’re looking at harvesting from tides, and we get strong tidal currents where the land is constricted, it’s narrow, it may be shallow in the water runs very quickly with the tides. What we put in these devices in these areas are devices that are turbans, they look a lot like a turbine you’ve seen in other things, including conventional hydropower in dams, however, they’re quite different. They aren’t as big and they don’t move as fast as hydropower, turbans. And they’re not blocking the whole area, the way a dam is. So that’s how we generate tide. Energy, we might move them to the bottom or place them on the bottom or put them near the surface. When we’re trying to harvest from waves, it’s quite tricky, you’re trying to get the energy from the up and down motion. And there’s many different types of technology that have been developed and are under development. Two harvests sort of different aspects of the wave, some of them on the surface, some on the bottom, some mid water column. So there’s many, there hasn’t been much technology convergence there just yet. There’s also the persistent ocean currents think about the Gulf Stream. And the idea is to put large, large turbans in places like the Gulf Stream, or the Kurdish geo current of Japan, there’s also various other ways you might do this. For instance, in the tropics, that warm water on the surface, in contrast to the very cold, deep water allows for a heat exchange process, you bring the cold water up, and you do a heat exchanger, like you might have a heat pump at your house. Those are the main ones that are under development, there are some others, but those are the the main technologies, there are still many different companies with many different styles of these devices working on them.

Alex Wise  6:14  And can you give us an idea of the potential they have, in terms of replacing, let’s say, coal fired power plants, or even just traditional hydropower?

Andrea Copping  6:25  You know, it’s that sounds like it should be a straightforward question to answer. And it’s not, if we look, and we’ve done a lot of resource characterization, as we call it, how much energy is out there. And if you actually add it up, it’s way more energy than the world uses at this point. The real question is, how much can we really technically harness? And even more? So how can we do it responsibly and avoid places perhaps that are big migratory routes for animals or places where there will be other kinds of interactions. So we believe that along the coast of many nations, including the US, it would be very possible to replace a substantial amount of the current non renewable sources with these with ocean energy. However, I want to be clear, marine energy is probably always going to work well with wind and with solar. All these renewable sources need to work together because they have different periodicities, the sun goes down at night, sometimes the wind doesn’t blow. So we need to think about how we integrate these renewables together. But there is no reason to think for particularly for coastal areas, and probably across a place like the US we couldn’t cover the vast majority of power needs.

Alex Wise  7:47  Now, is there a correlation? In your research? Have you found a correlation between the efficiencies of some of these ocean energy technologies and the potential hazard that they pose for marine life and ecosystems? In general?

Andrea Copping  8:04  As a really interesting question, we haven’t, we have the sense because this is a still a new industry, we don’t have as much in the water to really look at. But we have the sense that the more machines you put out, the larger machines you put out, there’s likely to be more danger of animals intersecting them. So the smaller devices may be less dangerous. But that’s still a little bit of a theoretical aspect. And to be honest, we don’t know enough about many of these interactions to know how dangerous they are, we have been able to understand some of them. The underwater noise coming from these devices, will it interrupt? Marine Mammal and fish communication and navigation? Generally? We don’t think so. Because the sounds are not that great. That’s not like pile driving or ship propellers. We think the electromagnetic signals coming from the cables coming to shore are small enough, they’re unlikely to affect animals that are sensitive to it. There’s certain ones like the the rotating blades of a tidal turbine, could this hit a marine mammal or a series of fish or even diving birds? And sea turtles? We just don’t know for sure. And it’s really hard to prove that won’t happen.

Alex Wise  9:22  You mentioned the cables. Andrea, I’m curious how beyond the cables themselves posing a potential hazard for marine life. You mentioned that there coastal projects, but that’s all relative, some are right off shore, I imagined but some are fairly far out. Maybe you can kind of summarize some of the projects and how far they go out from the actual land.

Andrea Copping  9:46  For sure, well, title projects because they tend to be generated in these constructions of land tend to be quite close to shore, maybe a kilometer, maybe a few kilometers. Some of the wave projects that are being developed will be further offshore, however, you do need to bring the electricity back to shore, which means a big, you know, electrical cable and cables are really expensive their installation are expensive. So the real issue is to cite a project where you’ve got really good energy source, but as close to land and frankly as close to a good port that will allow you to do maintenance and installation and so on. So we’re not generally talking about things way out in the ocean, but within you know, 10 to 20 kilometers at most.

(Music Break)

Alex Wise  10:38  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio. And I’m speaking to Andrea Copping. She’s a senior research scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. So Andrea, for your work, you’ve been analyzing the effects of marine energy projects around the world. What are some of the ones that are working best and which ones are a red flag for you and your team.

Andrea Copping  12:00  So the real epicenter of development particularly for tidal energy, but wave is coming along as well is Scotland. Northern Scotland’s got amazing tidal and wave resources. And more than a decade ago, the European Union put money into the European marine energy center, a test center way up north between Scotland and the the Orkney Islands. And that is really helped to bring machines there for testing, which then have been spun off into actual projects. So that’s where the real center of the world has been. However, in recent years, the Bay of Fundy in Canada, which is you know, eastern Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick has the highest tides in the world. We are really seeing China and Japan moving forward quickly, as is Australia, particularly with wave energy. There’s a number of the other European nations, the northern ones tend to have more title and the Southern European major nations more wave projects, Spain, Portugal, and so on. So there, it’s really starting to happen a lot of places. But commercial development is really still lagging. And a lot of it comes down to the amount of money involved and sort of the political will to really put a lot of nation of a nation’s efforts into this work.

Alex Wise  13:26  Yes, I can imagine a lot of NIMBYism, not in my backyard movements wanting to restrict this type of expansion, whether it be from commercial fishermen to just like what you see in terms of offshore wind projects to

Andrea Copping  13:45  Yeah, there’s certainly NIMBYism, and there’s pushback from the fishing community. Now, the marine energy devices, and the number of them will not be nearly as large as the offshore wind devices. Offshore wind is really trying to get at the very, very large amounts of power generated from a single turbine, and then, but have a lot of them. So we are seeing that. But it’s also important to recognize the oceans a really tough place to work. And getting devices that are robust enough to exist for a long time is tough, you have to really engineer them very strongly. And we’ve found that that progress has been a bit slow with these large devices, such that the price of energy, the cost levelized cost of energy is just too high. So one of the things we have been exploring recently with some of our sister laboratories, has been what we’ve called powering the blue economy, looking to use wave and tidal devices for smaller end uses than national grid electricity. We think of places where electrons might be worth more remote communities say in Alaska or on our on islands that bring in diesel in order to generate electricity. That’s a price point that we can meet. And we can provide the smaller amounts that are needed to supply say us a village or a community. Similarly, as we’re trying to feed the world and move aquaculture, fin fish production and so on further offshore, we just assume they didn’t take their diesel gensets with a but rather allowed wave energy to generate the power needed to run those devices, for sensors for lighting, etc. And finally, ocean observations. This is a a whole industry that isn’t very visible to the public, but the number of weather buoys, other kinds of scientific instruments that would like autonomous underwater vehicles that go out and collect data and then come back and to date, we have to go send a ship out to get them. What if we can generate the power right there in the ocean and keep these things at sea. And as we try to use the ocean more, obviously, shipping, but many other uses, there is a need for power to be generated right there at sea. So this is an area of research that’s really active for us and for the Department of Energy.

Alex Wise  16:13  And are there any households that are getting their lights turned on from these projects? Or are they purely in the experimental stages around the globe?

Andrea Copping  16:24  Oh, there definitely are up in the Orkney Islands where the brain energy the European marine energy center is they have too much power. They are using excess power from both Tidal and wind making it into hydrogen and using it in fuel cells for their groups of small trucks, they’re starting to put it on their inter Island ferries, they are already supplying the entire island chain. There are other places that are doing this in a smaller way. In France, in, in China. And actually, for a while the verdant energy project in the East River of New York, right in the middle of Manhattan was supplying a small number of stores and so on on Roosevelt Island. So there’s definitely active energy going into the grid. It’s not tremendously widespread yet.

Alex Wise  17:22  So Andrea, I imagined the regulatory requirements for these projects are fairly cumbersome, does the fact that they’re not on land, make it easier for these projects to get greenlit or harder?

Andrea Copping  17:36  I would say harder, I likes it. It’s a very complex situation, the Law of the Sea unclose, frankly, doesn’t really come into it. Because to date, all of these projects are close enough to land they’re within territorial waters of individual nations. The project that one of the projects I lead is an international initiative with 16 countries, looking at environmental effects with the purpose of getting devices in the water and therefore interacting and supplying the information needed for regulatory approval. But it is complex. The US has a very complex one with a lot of different agencies. A few countries like the UK, really brought their regulatory processes under one roof, as it were, and particularly in Scotland, which has really helped some of the developing and some other countries have less regulatory requirements, which makes it easier to get in the water. But it’s not simple at all. My group under this ocean energy systems environmental initiative, one of the things we’ve been doing is gathering the science together the evidence basis of what we understand of these interactions with machines and animals or habitats, and really trying to put it into the context of regulatory language not just for the US, but for the 16 countries. How do you take the science as a regulator and apply it to what your mandate is? How do you determine what’s appropriate and what’s not? How do you end from that? Stems the requirements for the project developer to collect more data very expensive at sea to have more baseline information available before they’re allowed to go in the water? And also how much monitoring they need to do after they’ve installed? How long do they need to observe a turbine with acoustic instruments and cameras to be sure nothing will collide with it and so on.

Alex Wise  19:42  How does it stack up compared to offshore wind let’s say in terms of construction time and cost?

Andrea Copping  19:50  Offshore wind is great deal more expensive, but the installations are much, much larger and you will get much higher levels of power eventually So there’s two types of offshore wind, the common one we’ve seen all over Europe and what’s going on in the East Coast in on the East Coast are bottom mounted, they are drilled or pile driven into the sea floor. And then the turbine put up in deeper water such as we have on the West Coast, they will be floating platforms anchored to the sea floor. And so there’s real differences there in both size and cost. marine energy devices wave and title, particularly the little ones I was talking about powering the blue economy are smaller. They in that sense, they are cheaper and easier to put in, they are also removed removable. If they’re turned out to be a problem, it’s a lot easier to take something away, take its anchors out and bring it ashore, and perhaps even bring it in for maintenance. But if you have a turbine that is drilled into the bottom, you can’t do that you have to do all your construction and maintenance at sea. So they’re trade-offs, they’re very different processes. Some of the vessels you’ll use will be the same some of the techniques, and certainly the auction offshore expertise is common. There’s a lot we learned from offshore wind and vice versa. And the regulatory processes in most countries are fairly similar. They’re a bit more different in the US but they’re there’s the same sort of process that needs to be undertaken.

(Music Break)

Alex Wise  22:06  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Andrea Copping, she’s a senior research scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Now, you mentioned some of the problems in terms of construction, but you study a lot of the effects on marine life and ecosystems stemming from these projects. I’m curious if you tend to start with the apex predators or the smaller micro animals in the ecosystems, from plankton and coral to dolphins and whales, maybe you can give us some highlights of conclusions that your team has reached.

Andrea Copping  22:49  As far as underwater noise goes. So these are machines, so generating power, they’re making noise. We know the marine mammals and the fish and certain fish species are the ones that that use sound underwater as we use sight on land, to communicate to find mates to find prey. And so we have examined that across a whole series a whole set of frequencies, and decided generally speaking for those devices we’ve measured to date, the amount of noise is below a threshold level, there’s a regulatory threshold level, where animals are likely to be harmed or disturbed. And generally those seeing those machines are making less noise than that. So that’s a good thing. Same with the electromagnetic fields from both field and laboratory studies, what is being carried in those power cables are will be in the next 10 to 20 years is below threshold where we believe there will be harm. So those are great, we can put them aside. And that’s particularly marine mammals, fish, maybe crab lobster, when it comes to things like corals, and so on. We really think of those in terms of habitat. It’s a place on the bottom of the ocean where other things live, as well. And so we think hard about where you cite these devices. Imagine you have an area with a whole lot of sand or soft bottom and one coral reef, you don’t put the device down on top of the coral reef. So we know what those kinds of effects can be from other offshore industries, including oil and gas, and it’s a matter of citing them really well. And I alluded to collision risk animals running into these turning blades of of a tidal turbine or or even a turbine in a river, which we do as well not in a dam but just sitting on a river. That’s a really, really hard one. Because there’s nothing analogous it’s not like a hydro turbine. It’s not like a ship propeller.

Alex Wise  24:49  And tell us about OTEC, Andrea – ocean thermal energy conversion. It sounds like it could have possibilities for some remote areas that are suffering from rising seas, for example.

Andrea Copping  25:04  If we think of tropical countries, some of the US protectorates like Puerto Rico and Guam and Hawaii, but also so many island nations that are suffering from climate change the ocean thermal energy conversion OTEC, which is using the deep cold water and the warm surface water, this is a technology that’s ready to go just waiting for the opportunity to really get out there and demonstrate it’s much simpler technology than wave retitle. And the great thing is it really can produce baseload power 24/7 around the clock with little maintenance. So that’s another one that I think as we move forward, they’re pretty expensive to put in. But this is could be a real saving grace, especially for small island developing states and US protectorates. It has to be tropical, you need to have at least a 20 degree centigrade difference between cold deep ocean water and warm surface water. But that covers Hawaii, Puerto Rico, all the Caribbean Islands and the South Sea Islands, South Pacific islands, as well as many, many areas of the world that are suffering sea level rise and other effects of climate change.

Alex Wise  26:17  So you analyze the risks, but you also really understand the technology. It sounds like you’re fairly bullish on the prospects of marine energy. Is that a fair assessment?

Andrea Copping  26:29  I am. And the reason is, we have to obviously mitigate climate change. The beauty of marine energy is it is pretty modular. As I’ve mentioned, there are some pretty big devices, but they can be made smaller, and you can put as many in as you need where you need them. Which means they can provide power in remote communities, islands, etc. It can really fill in some of those niches that we don’t know how else to fill with renewables, some solar Sure, but you get up to northern Alaska, and there’s not a lot of light in the winter. Wind, Turbans are tough in very extreme environments, like, again, the Arctic or Alaska, they don’t work, you know, that air, they tend to need a lot of maintenance. So I’m pretty bullish on this as a coastal system for small communities. And I believe as we get better with the technology, and we can bring the price down, I think they can be there right alongside offshore wind and solar providing to the national grids around the world. So I think we can do this safely. We have to be cognizant of what we’re doing. And we need a lot more information and data on what might happen. To really be sure and we need to be vigilant, but I think it’s got real possibilities.

Alex Wise  27:52  She’s a senior research scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Andrea Copping. Andrea, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Andrea Copping  28:01  You’re welcome. Happy to be here.

Narrator  28:17  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise – additional music by Santana, Charles Brown and Van Morrison. Check out our website at to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken and many others and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week, as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.