Technologies Within Our Scope


Last updated: September 2020

Author: Andrea Copping, PhD

Organization: Pacific Northwest National Lab, United States

Persistent currents that follow specific narrow paths, moving columns of water that stretch from the surface down to ocean depths, are found throughout the world’s ocean basins. The most persistent, predictable, and energy-rich currents are found at the western boundary of ocean basins. Most notable of these, for marine renewable energy harvest, are the Kuroshio Current in the Pacific Ocean flowing past Korea, Taiwan, and Japan; the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean, flowing past the US and Canada; and the Agulhus Current in the Indian Ocean, flowing along the coast of South Africa. 

Harvesting the major ocean currents will require very large turbines (up to 25-50m in diameter) to capture the slow but persistent currents, that will be suspended in the water column at optimal subsurface depths, and will be anchored to the seabed, often hundreds to thousands of meters deep. Tapping the potential of ocean currents is in the research and development phase, with a small number of field trials and demonstration projects off Taiwan and Japan, and the United States.

Technological challenges for developing ocean current power include deployment and maintaining the position of turbines; and concerns include the need to avoid shipping interactions, potential collision or entanglement issues with large marine mammals and sea turtles, and running export cables through fragile nearshore habitats like coral reefs. At this time, ocean current generation is very expensive and must improve reliability and lower costs to deliver baseload electricity, lessons that can be learned from river and tidal stream turbine development.

Figure 1. Examples of Ocean Current Energy Converters. https://tethys-engineering.pnnl.gov/photo-library
Figure 2. World Energy Ocean Currents Resource. IPCC (2012). Renewable Sources and Climate Change Mitigation. Report.

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