China’s New Wager: Pulling Energy From the Ocean

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March 31, 2014

Lengthy Coastline, Pollution Make Country a Prime Testing Ground in Joint Ventures With Western Firms

regA race is under way to unlock one of the world’s biggest untapped sources of clean energy—the ocean—with China emerging as an important testing ground.

That could heighten competition with Western companies, especially if Chinese businesses begin using technologies developed with joint-venture partners to expand rapidly.

The European Union so far has led efforts to harness the sea to make electricity, for which there are three principal techniques: underwater turbines that draw power from the ebb and flow of tides, surface-based floats that rely on wave motion and systems that exploit differences in water temperature.

The world’s first commercial, grid-connected tidal-flow generator was installed in Northern Ireland in 2008. Germany’s Siemens, a big investor in wave and tidal power, predicts that tidal currents alone could someday power 250 million households world-wide. France’s Alstom also is developing the technology.

But with 11,000 miles of coastline rich with energy potential and pollution that is getting worse, China is seen by many experts as an ideal location to pioneer and commercialize ocean-energy technologies.

China is stepping up spending in the sector, and foreign companies including U.S.-based Lockheed Martin Corp. are testing equipment and entering joint ventures in the country.

Among the projects under study with Chinese backing: the dynamic tidal-power wall, with turbines using curved blades that are designed to allow eels and fish to pass through safely. If approved, the wall could supply as much electricity as 2½ large nuclear reactors—and cost as much as $30 billion. Investors include the Netherlands government and a consortium of eight Dutch companies, including engineering firms Arcadis NV and Strukton Groep NV.

The venture dwarfs other sea-power projects and could produce electricity more cheaply than offshore wind farms, says Dimiti de Boer, a senior adviser for environment and climate change at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization.

The project involves building a wall running perpendicular from the coast and then branching off into a T, extending around 20 miles and studded with turbines that would channel and concentrate the power of tidal water. Beijing provided $3.3 million for feasibility studies that are under way in China. Construction is at least a decade away, though initial findings suggest that shallow waters on the Chinese, Korean and European coasts could be suitable.

“China is at the cutting edge” in sea-energy technology development, says Mr. de Boer, who is based in Beijing.

Making electricity from the sea still is far more costly than using coal, oil, nuclear reactors or wind, and some technologies being tested in China could prove impractical.

Since 2010, Beijing has spent around one billion yuan, or roughly $160 million, on energy from the sea, says Wang Chuankun, a former head of the ocean-energy committee of the China Renewable Energy Society academic association.

Overall private investment in sea-energy projects in Europe has reached about $825 million over the past seven years, and the U.S. Energy Department is supporting several Pacific Coast research ventures. Chile, Australia and other countries also have substantial projects under way.

Many people in the industry believe China will be key, however. Lockheed is working with Chinese conglomerate Reignwood Group, to build the world’s first large-scale, ocean thermal-energy conversion power station. The companies plan to decide by June where in Asia to build the 10-megawatt facility, which will use warm surface water to heat ammonia, which has a low boiling point, making steam to drive a turbine without carbon emissions. The steam is then condensed using deeper, colder water and the cycle is repeated, producing a constant flow of electricity costing around 15 cents a kilowatt-hour. That is more expensive than nuclear power but well below the 22 cents for offshore wind turbines, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Ten megawatts is enough to power about 10,000 Western households.

Lockheed believes that building utility-scale generators that are 10 times larger would be economically and technically viable, says Dan Heller, the company’s vice president of new ventures.

Atlantis Resources Ltd. is building the world’s largest tidal-flow project, to power 200,000 homes off northern Scotland using hundreds of seabed generators. The company, which is based in Singapore and listed in London, last year signed a pact with China’s Dongfang Electric Machinery Co. to produce low-cost, 1.5-megawatt underwater turbines. Atlantis recently agreed to work with Lockheed on improving the design of seabed turbines.

Atlantis plans this year to install a turbine for the Chinese government’s largest tidal test project, near Shanghai.

Israel-based Eco Wave Power is working with the Zhejiang, China, provincial government to assess three sites for a 50-megawatt, wave-powered generator using floats anchored to piers. Each 70-meter breakwater would use 10 floats to make one megawatt of energy. S.D.E. Ltd., also from Israel, is building a third wave- and tide-driven system using buoys, in the southern Chinese city of Guangdong.

Some experts predict cooperation between Western and Chinese marine-energy pioneers could turn into heated competition as the market develops, repeating what happened in the wind and solar sectors. A European Commission strategy paper in January warned of future competition from foreign businesses for a market potentially valued at hundreds of billions of dollars and urged bloc governments to back domestic projects.

“Without a doubt, we will see a rise in the number of disputes between Chinese and foreign companies over renewables technology patents, including marine energy,” says Xiang Wang, a Beijing-based lawyer with Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe. The rapid growth in Chinese companies’ share of wind and solar equipment manufacturing prompted U.S. and EU antidumping and antisubsidy measures in the past two years and has fueled patent disputes.

Many alternative-energy executives are hopeful, however, that China’s involvement will bring the day closer when marine power becomes a significant part of world energy supply.

“Sea-wave technology is a rising star in the renewable-energy sector,” says S.D.E. Chief Executive Shmuel Ovadia. What is happening in China “might inspire other countries and other entities to support wave-energy technologies.”