The global demand for energy shows no sign of slowing. Across the world, nations are using power in ever-expanding quantities and in new sectors, such as the widespread electrification of transport. But growing awareness of our climate crisis has resulted in national and international agreements around clean and renewable energy generation. That is prompting science, governments and industry to increasingly cast their nets towards the oceans.

Offshore renewable energy (ORE) has long been recognised as having huge potential. Since the 1970s, for example, wave energy has been recognised as a sustainable and clean way of powering our homes, industries and communities. Our own research now suggests it could provide at least 15% of the UK’s annual electricity and similarly, the UK has the second-highest tidal range in the world and there are estimates that around 50% of Europe's tidal energy resource lies in UK waters.

The UK’s offshore wind infrastructure, meanwhile, contributed 9.8% of the UK's power in the third quarter of 2019. The 2019 Offshore Wind Sector Deal committed the UK to building up to 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030, with an ambition of increasing exports fivefold to £2.6 billion. It has recently been superseded by the UK Government’s Energy White Paper, which increases this target to 40 gigawatts. 

To help the country meet its Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions target by 2050, all these forms of ORE will be required. So although they are at different stages of maturity, the need to maintain and accelerate research and development is paramount.

The conditions right around the UK coastline – particularly in the Shetlands, Pentland Firth and Orkney, Hebrides, Pembrokeshire, South West England, and the North Sea – remain more than capable of supporting the necessary wave and tidal energy developments.

As an early leader, the UK wave energy sector has accumulated considerable experience, expertise and knowledge from the development and deployment of various prototypes and has a strong community of academics and industry. And there are estimates of up to 8,100 new jobs in wave energy by 2040.

To make that vision a reality, we need to cut current technology unit cost and that will – in turn – unlock further investment and development. It is high on the majority of ORE priority lists, while we ourselves are pursuing projects investigating innovative wave energy converter concepts using new materials that can reap the renewable rewards in a cost effective and sustainable way.

Perhaps at the opposite end of the scale is offshore wind. The majority of existing offshore wind turbines are fixed to the seafloor in water depths up to 60 metres. And such sites are in limited supply.

However, there is growing recognition of the need for floating offshore wind technology and the need for government to support their advancement. In that regard, the University recently secured funding to create the UK’s first Floating Offshore Wind Turbine Test facility to enable physical modelling experiments with wind, wave and currents simultaneously. It will greatly improve understanding of how future technology advances could be impacted by atmospheric conditions, and provide a low-risk environment in which researchers can test new and novel concepts.

Cornwall – which will host the G7 leaders in the coming days and weeks – is home to projects fast-tracking and scaling up the development of floating wind energy, potentially creating thousands of jobs and generating hundreds of millions of pounds for local economies.

With the massive acceleration in deployments expected over the next 30 years, it is also essential that we prepare the workforces of the future. So as well as leading the academic and innovation responses for the UK, through the Supergen ORE Hub, we are also using our research, facilities and partnerships to educate the next generation of offshore renewable energy engineers.

We know the natural resources are there, and – across science and industry – we have the expertise to harness them. However, the fact remains that if we are to truly realise the sector’s potential it needs more than just numbers on paper and goodwill.

The sixth carbon budget and balanced pathway, recommended by the Committee for Climate Change, would require an investment programme worth around £50 billion each year from 2030 to 2050. But, more than ever before, future emissions reductions will require people to be actively involved and that must be embedded throughout policy.

Through its presidency of the UN Climate talks Cop26 and the G7, the UK has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a global game-changer in this field. If it does so, the benefits for not just the nation – but the planet as a whole – could be huge.

COP26: Examining the evidence for global action 

The UN Climate Change Convention in 2021 – also known as COP26 – represented the largest coming together of world leaders to address climate change, and find real solutions. The race is truly on to slow climate change and protect our planet, improve global health and re-build post-pandemic economies through a green recovery.

For our part, it is more important than ever that researchers take a whole-systems approach in the search for solutions. We need to address local environmental priorities alongside national and international goals, if net-zero carbon and sustainable blue-green growth is to be achieved. Our researchers share how systems thinking through transdisciplinary research is key to providing evidence for global action ahead of COP26.

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