World’s most powerful tidal turbine pumps out greener electricity in Scotland

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Sean Fleming, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • The Orbital O2 can generate enough green electricity for 2,000 homes and will operate for 15 years.
  • It will offset the equivalent of 2,200 tonnes of CO2 per year.
  • Wave and tidal power are an important part of the green energy mix for reducing global CO2 emissions.

The world’s most powerful tidal energy turbine is in operation in Orkney, off the northern shores of mainland Scotland. Capable of generating enough renewable electricity to meet the needs of 2,000 homes and offsetting around 2,200 tonnes of CO2 (per year), the most powerful wave-power turbine in the world has gone into service.

The Orbital O2 floating turbine is anchored in the notoriously fast-flowing waters of the Orkney archipelago, which lies less than 20km to the north of the Scottish mainland. It measures 74m in length and is destined to remain operational for the next 15 years. A subsea cable connects the Orbital O2’s 2 MW output to the onshore electricity network.

Renewable energy and the 1.5ºC target

The need to make more progress toward the energy transition is as pressing as ever. Since 1992, when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed, CO2 emissions from energy and industry have increased by 60%. That’s despite all the subsequent agreements and pledges from governments around the world to tackle the matter urgently.

In the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Net Zero by 2050 report, the organization warns that enough simply hasn’t been done to reduce global energy-related CO2 and that the Paris Agreement target of 1.5ºC warming above pre-industrial levels is in jeopardy.

this graph shows that targets are needed to get on track and avoid catastrophic warming
Targets are needed to get on track and avoid catastrophic warming. Image: International Energy Agency

Scotland is particularly well-placed to take advantage of wave power for generating greener electricity. It has an estimated 18,743 km of coastline and a sea area of approximately 462,315 km2. Harvesting power from waves and the tides could meet as much as 20% of the UK’s electricity demand, according to a 2013 government report. Since then, the withdrawal of public subsidies for some green energy projects has led to some tidal power developments being cancelled or postponed in the UK.

The Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero and Energy, Michael Matheson, in a statement on the Orbital website, said: “With our abundant natural resources, expertise and ambition, Scotland is ideally-placed to harness the enormous global market for marine energy whilst helping deliver a net-zero economy.”

The bigger picture for tidal power

Elsewhere in the world, there are tidal power plants in operation that dwarf the Orbital O2’s output. The largest of all is the Sihwa Lake tidal power station in South Korea, approximately 4km from the city of Siheung. It’s output capacity is 254 MW.

At 240 MW, the La Rance power plant in France is the world’s second largest. A similar-sized development near the UK city of Swansea was among those scrapped following changes in funding allocation.

The World Economic Forum’s Uplink programme is supporting an innovative wave-power technology in Australia.

How UpLink is helping to find innovations to solve challenges like this

UpLink is a digital platform to crowdsource innovations in an effort to address the world’s most pressing challenges.

It is an open platform designed to engage anyone who wants to offer a contribution for the global public good. The core objective is to link up the best innovators to networks of decision-makers, who can implement the change needed for the next decade. As a global platform, UpLink serves to aggregate and guide ideas and impactful activities, and make connections to scale-up impact.https://www.weforum.org/videos/uplink

Hosted by the World Economic Forum, UpLink is being designed and developed in collaboration with Salesforce, Deloitte and LinkedIn.

Wave turbines follow the same basic mechanical idea as wind turbines – a large propeller or an array of blades gets turned by the force of the tide (or the wind) and in turn that spins the rotor shaft of the generator. They are more expensive to build than wind turbines, as they have to withstand a harsher operating environment. But they capture more of the available energy than wind turbines.

There could be, however, potential risks of harm to aquatic life from tidal turbines.

Tethys, a service run by the US Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, cites “collision between turbine blades and marine organisms due to natural animal movements, attraction to the device, or inability to avoid the turbines within strong currents,” as the greatest possible dangers.

“There is also concern that noise from turbines can affect animals that use sound for communication, social interaction, orientation, predation, and evasion,” it says on its website.

In 2018, Canada’s Fundy Ocean Research Center for Energy released a report in which it detailed the impact of a tidal turbine in the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia. It concluded there had been no significant impact on marine life.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

Moving to clean energy is key to combating climate change, yet in the past five years, the energy transition has stagnated.

Energy consumption and production contribute to two-thirds of global emissions, and 81% of the global energy system is still based on fossil fuels, the same percentage as 30 years ago. Plus, improvements in the energy intensity of the global economy (the amount of energy used per unit of economic activity) are slowing. In 2018 energy intensity improved by 1.2%, the slowest rate since 2010.

Effective policies, private-sector action and public-private cooperation are needed to create a more inclusive, sustainable, affordable and secure global energy system.

Benchmarking progress is essential to a successful transition. The World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, which ranks 115 economies on how well they balance energy security and access with environmental sustainability and affordability, shows that the biggest challenge facing energy transition is the lack of readiness among the world’s largest emitters, including US, China, India and Russia. The 10 countries that score the highest in terms of readiness account for only 2.6% of global annual emissions.

To future-proof the global energy system, the Forum’s Shaping the Future of Energy and Materials Platform is working on initiatives including, Systemic Efficiency, Innovation and Clean Energy and the Global Battery Alliance to encourage and enable innovative energy investments, technologies and solutions.

Additionally, the Mission Possible Platform (MPP) is working to assemble public and private partners to further the industry transition to set heavy industry and mobility sectors on the pathway towards net-zero emissions. MPP is an initiative created by the World Economic Forum and the Energy Transitions Commission.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

The Scottish government backed the development of the Orbital O2 with $4.72 million of funding, from the Saltire Tidal Energy Challenge fund. Other funding for the project came via the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme, and the European Regional Development Fund https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=facebook.com%2Fworldeconomicforum%2Fvideos%2F832199824100239%2F&width=640&show_text=false&appId=1085482764806408&height=360

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