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UK: Fledgling tidal industry on the rise

The UK has some of the world's most powerful tidal conditions but only now is the tidal industry starting to make progress

It is easy to regard tidal power as one of the poor relations in the race to meet global renewable energy targets. Wind and solar are already up and running commercially, while wave power is the most advanced of the marine technologies. But a series of prototype tidal projects are making progress in the UK.

The country offers some of the world's most powerful tidal conditions, in areas such as the estuary of the River Severn in England and the Pentland Firth in Scotland. Estimates of the country's tidal-power potential range from 5 gigawatts (GW) to 15 GW.

UK firm Marine Current Turbines (MCT) said in January that its £12m ($17.4m) SeaGen prototype project, operating at Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland, is able to operate at its 1.2 megawatts capacity for the first time. MCT claims this is the highest output achieved by a tidal stream anywhere in the world – the location boasts one of the world's fastest flowing tidal currents. The success of its turbine, which operates like a horizontal underwater windmill, hints at the potential of tidal power, which MCT hopes to commercialise more widely across the UK. The company hopes to build farms of these turbines on other sites, such as the coast of Anglesey, Wales, where it is contemplating a 10 MW-plus project.

In Northern Ireland, Thetis Energy, a new consortium of local firms and Norwegian renewable-energy company Statkraft, is considering a £300m investment in tidal power, which could lead to a 100 MW project. Another tidal project poised to move beyond the drawing board is a venture between engineering company Rolls-Royce and a small firm called Tidal Generation, which is set to begin sea trials of a 0.5 MW tidal-powered turbine this year, with a 1 MW version planned for 2010. Rolls-Royce's involvement is related to its role as one of the lead players in the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI), a UK public-private partnership developing projects in tidal and wind power. Meanwhile, Tidal Energy is also poised to carry out trials on a 1 MW tidal turbine off the coast of Wales, which is due to become fully operational in 2010.

Ric Parker, director of research and technology at Rolls-Royce, recently predicted that some 300 MW of tidal capacity could be available in the UK by 2020, aggregated from 100-200 devices. Analysts note that, while this would be a sizeable step up from the fledgling tidal industry of today, it would still form a minuscule fraction of the UK's total power-generating capacity, which is nearly 80 GW. By contrast, UK wind power capacity has already topped 3 GW. This suggests tidal power will struggle to be more than a niche energy provider, at least during the early stages of the renewable-energy revolution.

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