Ocean Renewable Energy and the Energy Transition

Ocean Renewable Energy and the Energy Transition by Dr. Mary Ann Franco


Ocean renewable energy, which includes tidal energy, wave energy, ocean thermal energy conversion and salinity gradient, offers huge potential to contribute to the Energy Transition. With the vast water resources available to many countries, ocean renewable energy is deemed a natural power source especially for coastal communities. 

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (2020), “it could meet present and projected global electricity demand well into the future”. The agency projected that ocean energy technologies’ aggregated value could well be within the range of  45 000 terawatt-hours (TWh) and 130 000 TWh of electricity per year, or even well above the higher end.

Given the huge potential of ocean renewable energy technology to contribute to a more sustainable future, we invited Dr Mary Ann Q. Franco, a Research Fellow at the Energy Studies Institute, for an interview. Dr Franco previously worked at the Energy Research Institute at Nanyang Technological University (ERI@N) as the Lead Coordinator of two major programmes: Southeast Asian Collaboration for Ocean Renewable Energy (SEAcORE) and the Joint PhD-Industry Programme. SEAcORE has been the official technical working group on offshore and marine RE in Southeast Asia under the ASEAN Centre for Energy.

Read her insights below.


1. Give us a brief background on ocean renewable energy and how it is different from marine energy. How huge is the potential of ocean renewable energy in accelerating energy transition? 

First, let’s define what ocean renewable energy is. Ocean renewable energy is often used interchangeably with marine renewable energy. Ocean renewable energy refers to drawing of power from the ocean to generate electricity, which has different types that include tidal barrage, tidal in-stream, wave energy, salinity gradient and ocean thermal energy. Marine energy, on the other hand, is a general term that refers to anything in the marine space that generates renewable energy. That being said, ocean renewable energy is marine energy, together with other marine energy types such as offshore wind, floating PV solar, hybrid energy like a combination of offshore wind and floating PV.

Countries leading marine energy

Source: screen capture of Dr. Franco’s slides shared during the Zoom interview.

So, how huge is the potential of ocean renewable energy in contributing to the energy transition? Looking at Southeast Asia alone, the potential of ocean renewable energy is around 1 TW which is mostly from tidal in-stream—a number based on our discussions with experts in the region. (To put this into perspective, 1TW is equivalent to the total capacity of solar panels installed worldwide as of this month.)

The huge selling point for ocean renewable energy is its predictability and reliability, especially for tidal energy. It is predictable and reliable because it comes from accessible sources like wind, bodies of water and the gravitational forces of the sun, moon and earth. Once you find a potential site, then you can predict long-term energy resource. To match the supply with changing levels of demands, energy storage is key.

Unfortunately, despite being there for several years already, its development has been slow in this region, and there are still no large-scale projects. Some studies point out to the technical challenges of turbine deployment that are unique to the region or the lack of cost competitiveness of ocean energy technologies compared to fossil fuel and other renewables. Less looked upon is the social component of adoption which is public acceptance to such technologies especially in island communities where resource is high. Existing projects are more for demonstration and testing the technology, they are not yet connected to the grid.

What can accelerate ocean energy is a coordinated approach among different stakeholders to create the suitable technical, economic, environmental and political conditions for ocean energy development and sustainability in Southeast Asia region, that is, the presence of policy incentives and support to the sector to test the technology, creation of regional and local supply chain for the materials and equipment needed in the region, and finally social acceptance and participation of potential end-users and other marine space users.


2. What are the effective business models that countries may employ to maximise the potentials of ORE? What are the (commercialisation) opportunities and challenges for each of them? 

In terms of the Southeast Asian region itself, the one that is more recognised and effective based on the projects we studied is a phased approach where you deploy the technology by array or incrementally.  In this approach, although CAPEX and OPEX are high on the onset, costs will be eventually decreased when additional turbines are deployed in the sea. More accurate estimation of costs is also expected when we know that these technologies are working at local sea conditions.

Another model is hybridization, which means that you are not installing tidal turbines right away but combining them first with diesel gensets, solar PV and/or tidal turbines. According to studies, this approach is more  viable and it makes sense politically and socially for most communities. Cost-wise and acceptance-wise, this also makes more sense based on local deployment experience. Then later on, the goal is to have a full transition to a renewable energy system.

In all cases, it is required to do proper resource assessment to know the viability of ocean energy, environment impact assessment which is crucial to any marine project to know its impact on marine life, environment and diversity, and finally marine spatial planning or MSP. MSP is important as sea space caters to many users and not only to energy developers. In this way, an ocean energy project is tuned in or holistically developed with the needs and challenges of other marine users like fishermen, shipping, or even defence. These sectors can even think of combined solution to address marine decarbonisation or achieving blue economy!

Another commercial model is by starting with demonstration/test sites or the learning by doing process. National governments can provide marine space for project and technology developers and other supply chain players to test the ocean energy technology in actual sea conditions. More commercial-scale deployments in the region are needed to have accurate projections of the costs of deploying and sustaining ocean energy technologies. These deployments can be a source of “best practices” specifically suitable to Southeast Asian conditions and processes.

Blue Economy

Source: Envirotek, partners deploys tidal power in Singapore

3. Which geographic areas (countries or regions) will ocean renewable energy be most effective in contributing to the energy mix? What are the necessary strategies to encourage the growth of ocean renewable energy in these areas? 

In general, areas surrounded by water are the most ideal setting for ocean renewable energy generation, such as island communities and the ones near coastal areas. In fact, Southeast Asia is a perfect spot for this type of energy generation to pick up.

In terms of countries that have commercially deployed projects, South Korea, France, Monaco, Canada and China are the top five (5) countries with the largest generation capacity globally according to a 2017 report. There are also major activities on research, development and deployment (RD&D) in UK. In Southeast Asia, Philippines and Indonesia are promising sites for ocean energy as they are both archipelagic countries.

Aside from favourable geographical conditions, presence of local knowledge and expertise is also key in successfully adapting ocean renewable energy. Fortunately, we are not really starting from scratch. A lot of other industries are already using similar technologies, such as oil and gas, offshore wind and even the military. Open communications with these sectors to develop inter-industry learning, sharing of technological know-how and increasing of human resource capabilities are needed to successfully deploy ocean renewable energy technologies.

Another important factor is the presence of local supply chains to reduce costs. Phased approach towards ocean energy technology demonstrations would hopefully trigger local knowledge and expertise to build the supply chain for the region.

Overall, the best recommendation I can give and also echoing what experts in this field say is “to put more devices on the water and really test them.” In doing so, you can develop local expertise and knowledge, assess supply chain conditions and get more awareness and acceptance from other users of the marine space: shipping, fisherfolks, defence, etc.


4. Which industries are relevant to the development of ORE? Is repurposing of assets of conventional industries possible?

Offshore wind, oil and gas, shipping, and even solar energy sectors will be relevant to ocean renewable energy. Here, interindustry learning is important. We can learn more on wind turbine technicalities from offshore wind and shipping, while oil and gas companies can share their knowledge on certification and verification processes to install platforms in the sea. The solar energy sector can be a promising source of hybrid energy system deployed in marine space.

Aside from technology providers, developers and users, financial institutions like insurance providers are also important especially on pre-commercialisation stage. This is one of the industries that are usually overlooked, where they can provide financial security when equipment or tools fail during testing.

In terms of repurposing assets, the closest and potential entry points for ocean renewable energy are solar energy and offshore wind sectors. Tidal turbines can be integrated to offshore wind and floating solar systems as hybrid renewable energy system. A potential application of this hybrid energy source is powering up households and/or onshore charging station for electric vessels as mode of transportation, especially for island communities.

Sources: IRENA (2020), Innovation outlook: Ocean energy technologies, International Renewable Energy Agency, Abu Dhabi.


About Dr. Mary Ann Joy Q. Franco

Dr Mary Ann Q. Franco is a Programme Lead of Security of Supply and a Research Fellow at the Energy Studies Institute. Her academic research includes energy security, renewable
energy technology development in Southeast Asia, and science, technology and society (STS) studies. Her current research focuses on how energy-poor communities in developing
countries adopt clean energy technologies to achieve sustainable development. Specifically, she studies the impact of renewable energy (RE) on energy access and equity of off-grid,
remote and coastal communities in the Philippines. A part of her RE portfolio looks at the societal and policy implications of relatively novel RE technologies, like marine renewables,
in island communities.

She previously worked at the Energy Research Institute at Nanyang Technological University (ERI@N) as the Lead Coordinator of two major programmes: Southeast Asian Collaboration for Ocean Renewable Energy (SEAcORE) and the Joint PhD-Industry Programme. SEAcORE has been the official technical working group on offshore and marine RE in Southeast Asia under the ASEAN Centre for Energy. It is a platform for various stakeholders (academia, government, and industry) to drive and advance the research, development and deployment (RD&D) of ocean energy in Southeast Asia.

She has also been involved in different energy-related RD&D projects funded by international universities and government agencies across Southeast Asia. Her findings have been published in top-ranked academic journals. She completed her MSc in Asian Studies from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU and her PhD in Political Science from the National University of Singapore.

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