Guest Blog: Regulatory challenges for ocean energy

09 Mar 2016

The UK is leading the world on wave and tidal energy. But Glen Wright, from the French research institute IDDRI, argues that getting the regulation right is almost as important as getting the devices wet.

Our growing population and voracious appetite for resources, coupled with innovation and technological advancement, is driving unprecedented exploitation of the marine environment. At the same time, we are clambering to deal with climate change, decarbonise our energy systems, and switch to renewables.

At the intersection of these two trends is ocean energy, which encompasses wave and tidal energy, but also devices, still in development, that might harness natural ocean gradients in salinity and temperature (Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion, or OTEC, being an example of the latter).

These technologies are attracting interest and investment, and construction of the world’s largest tidal project is currently underway in the Pentland Firth, Scotland. However, such new technologies come with unique challenges.

Ocean energy is more than just a tough technological extension of onshore renewables, and developing a viable industry is not as simple as just getting the devices in the water (though that is a huge challenge). To quote Kerr et al., the ‘policy environment, governance, patterns of resource use, conservation values, and distribution of ownership rights are all substantively different from the situation onshore.’

My recent research suggests that the UK is well on the way to meeting many of the challenges, but developers often still face an uphill battle.

In particular, I have identified some specific regulatory difficulties for wave and tidal power, such as:

  • Developers generally want exclusive rights or tenure over near-shore marine spaces, challenging existing conceptions of rights and ownership (especially the strongly-held beliefs and legal principles to the effect that the sea belongs to us all).
  • The environmental impacts of the devices remain uncertain, yet developers are eager to get devices wet in order to prove their concepts. Traditionally cautious regulators are therefore under pressure to provide flexibility in otherwise rigid legal processes.
  • Commercial-scale ocean energy arrays will require swathes of sea at unprecedented scales. Single-sector management regimes are not fit to manage this, and wide-ranging reforms and marine spatial planning are needed.
  • The energy resource is, in principal, limited by surface area availability and the inherent energy content of the oceans, so regulators need to develop processes to manage competition and efficiently award exploitation rights.

As ocean energy technology advances, policymakers worldwide must reform their marine governance processes in order to ensure that the industry does not drown in a sea of haphazard and ineffective regulation. The pressures on existing regulatory regimes necessitate, in my view, coordinated and deliberate reform to facilitate industry development and protect the rights of other marine users and the marine environment.

Glen Wright is Research Fellow in International Marine Policy at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI), Paris, France.