Turning the tide on renewable marine energy

Putting Canada’s marine energy resources on the map

Today, almost 17 percent of Canada’s total primary energy supply comes from renewable resources.

Wind turbines and solar panels dot the landscape in many parts of Canada, each helping to reduce Canada’s dependence on fossil fuels and move the nation to more environmentally friendly and sustainable power sources. Today, almost 17 percent of Canada’s total primary energy supply comes from renewable resources – an important contribution toward extending the planet’s life and reducing our impact on the environment as energy demand continues to rise. The National Research Council (NRC) is working to increase this percentage through R&D focused on mapping marine energy resources improving the commercial and technical performance of marine renewable energy systems – emerging technologies for harvesting useful energy from ocean waves and water currents in both rivers and coastal waters.

With more than 200,000 kilometres of coastline and a vast network of rivers, Canada’s ocean waves and water currents are an immense renewable energy resource waiting to be harnessed. While wind and solar energy are having growing impact above ground, the progress that is being made underwater—where waves, tides and water currents are the country’s largest untapped sources of renewable energy—is less visible but could one day become even more important. Determining how to harness this potential cost-effectively, while further developing the commercial industry around marine energy is a challenge taken on by engineering experts at the NRC in partnership with Natural Resources Canada (NRCan).

Prospecting for power

With more than 200,000 kilometres of coastline and a vast network of rivers, Canada’s renewable energy resources from waves, tides, and river currents are among the richest in the world.

“With its world-class staff expertise, track record and test facilities in oceans and rivers, NRC was a natural choice for this project,” says Rob Brandon, NRCan’s Assistant Program Director, Clean Electricity Portfolio, Office of Energy Research and Development. Before they could work with commercial partners to generate marine energy, the team needed to investigate the potential of marine renewable energy.

This began with a Canada-wide inventory of renewable marine energy resources that, according to Brandon, “identified the size, location and characteristics of our tidal and wave energy resources – and provided private industry with data to help attract more investment in marine energy R&D.” An initial NRC study in 2005 collected and analysed data from hundreds of sources to develop sophisticated interactive maps highlighting areas in Canada’s Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic waters where energy densities are sufficient to spark interest in commercial development. Subsequent NRC studies involving sophisticated numerical simulations of tides, wave conditions and river flows produced far more detailed energy resource information for several high-profile regions, including the Bay of Fundy, the west coast of Vancouver Island and the St. Lawrence River. Recent studies have focused on quantifying and mapping the energy potential of the flows in all of Canada’s medium and large rivers.

While the potential to extract useful energy from Canada’s coastal waters and rivers appears to be enormous, it is not yet known how much of it will be usable. NRC’s Andrew Cornett, Senior Research Engineer and Program Leader of NRC's Marine Infrastructure, Energy and Water Resources Research program, cautions that the initial data reflects only the potential energy resource. “Just a fraction of this energy can ever be exploited commercially,” he says. “Our focus is shifting to identifying sites where useful power can be produced in the most cost-effective way, and where Canadian and multinational technology manufacturers can test their cutting-edge marine energy products.” Ongoing studies by NRC and NRCan will help to refine and quantify Canada’s extensive resource opportunities and also establish the impacts of removing energy from the natural environment.

Chris Campbell, then Executive Director of Marine Renewables Canada – an organization that works with industry, academia and government to ensure Canada is a leader in providing ocean energy solutions to a world market – expects that the unique capacity of NRC will play an increasingly vital role in this new world industry. He adds that “NRC’s world-class numerical modelling and physical testing facilities, along with extensive staff expertise in marine engineering, are invaluable international assets.”

NRC’s early efforts on marine energy resource mapping helped to convince NRCan to increase its investment in marine energy research, and have also led to the next step: field testing of large-scale wave and hydrokinetic energy production systems – a key milestone towards global commercialization of these emerging technologies. “At the moment, our largest project is the development of infrastructure in Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy so that tests of large-scale underwater turbines can be conducted,” explains Brandon.

Flowing into the future

Numerical simulation of daily average power (W) in Canada

Recent studies focused on quantifying and mapping the energy potential of the flows in all of Canada’s rivers have identified a rich trove of untapped renewable energy resources distributed Canada-wide. Once the most promising sites are identified and verified, extraction technologies such as zero-head turbines or paddle wheels can be deployed to produce useful energy to power urban centres and remote communities.

“The technology for tapping into river power is just emerging, so the inventory and mapping are very useful for companies developing it and wanting to test it in Canadian rivers,” says Brandon. “Like our waves and tides studies, we expect the river data to attract additional R&D investment from around the world – and we have already seen expressions of interest.” Continuing efforts are focused on the critical research needs of the Canadian marine energy industry, which aspires to serve growing domestic and international markets for ocean and river energy while delivering a more sustainable future for Canadians.

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