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Sustainable Energy's New Frontier: The Ocean

Energy often goes hand in hand with power, in both senses of the word. Energy, like power, has many negative connotations which mostly stem from its abuses. However, the appearance of renewable and sustainable methods of producing energy from the earth's natural forces is proof that with great power comes the potential to make a huge positive change to life as we know it.

Of the natural forces, and being relatively straightforward to harness, solar and wind energy seem to be becoming more and more established in the energy market. On the contrary, the ocean, with its vast potential to create energy, has proven much more complicated to tame.

Unlike solar and wind power, there are multiple ways to generate power from the ocean. One of the more feasible options is by tidal power, whereby power is generated by the movement or change in levels of water mass, and the weight of the moving water powers the turbines. The UK seems to be at the forefront of tidal power utilisation, where a £1 billion artificial lagoon is currently awaiting government developmental consent to be built in Swansea bay, Wales--which has one of the highest tidal ranges in the world of 7-9 meters-- and is said to be able to provide energy to 155000 homes at an investment of about £30 billion.

Another extremely powerful method to harvest ocean energy comes from waves. However, the rough conditions of the open water and the unmatched force of waves, some of which can travel unbroken over thousands of miles, have made wave technology quite difficult to master. Potential designs for wave energy technology include floating platforms connected to a cable which is pulled upwards when lifted by a wave, and in turn spins a generator. Another design is similar in method to the tidal systems, whereby waves overlap to fill an enclosed area upon a floating platform situated above sea level, and then run back out into the sea via a hole fitted with a turbine, thus causing said turbine to spin.

But it's not all about engineering and mechanics, the discussion surrounding ocean energy also concerns the potential effects on marine life. There are concerns that the walls of the proposed Swansea lagoon could potentially block fish migration patterns, and that some fish could potentially stray into the turbines. However, the positive attributes seem to outweigh the negative, as not only could the lagoon's walls serve as a reef, but the lagoon itself could help close down the extremely polluting, coal-fired, Aberthaw power station nearby. There are also environmental concerns surrounding tapping into the power of currents. A popular design for harnessing the ocean's currents consists of turbines tethered to the sea floor. While the turbines would probably not be moving fast enough to harm sea life or produce significant noise pollution, the alterations to the current itself may have unknown impacts on marine life.

However, what is certain about current produced energy is that it would be a predictable and constant source of incredible energy; although ocean currents are relatively slow compared to wind speeds, the high density of the water would produce the same, if not greater, amount of force as high moving winds, which then translates into potential energy.

And still even more unexplored opportunities lie in the ocean, from thermal energy conversion to osmotic power (using the difference in density and pressure between salt and fresh water). Thus, it is undeniable that the Ocean--covering up to 70 per cent of the earth's surface-- is an incredible source of attainable energy. Although ocean energy solutions may seem complicated, expensive and uncertain, the potential to create clean and sustainable energy must not be ignored.

By Thomas Phillips - Online Journalism Intern

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