Industry Updates

Collaboration Could Bring Tidal Power to Light

21 Jun, 2017 • The Canadian Trade Commissioner Service

Harnessing the vast power of ocean tides can create climate-friendly, renewable energy; although turbulent waters can be unpredictable and play havoc with the equipment used to generate this valuable resource. A Canadian company offers technology to make tidal power more sustainable.

Rockland Scientific Inc. makes special instrumentation to measure turbulence in marine environments. The Victoria, B.C., company is participating in a collaboration between Canadian and British researchers to develop new sensing technologies for tidal energy applications. The research and development (R&D) project aims to produce environmental monitoring and measurement sensor systems that reduce the risk and uncertainties associated with using instream devices (designed for the use of water within a flow or stream channel) to generate energy from tidal power.

“The technology is complex; this trans-Atlantic R&D project is a complimentary pooling of unique talents, abilities and knowledge in this field,” says Fabian Wolk, president of Rockland Scientific.

Flows in narrow tidal channels are extremely turbulent and variable, which affects the reliability and efficiency of energy extraction, explains Wolk. This also subjects equipment to vibration that can lead to early fatigue and failure. Measuring the turbulence accurately—one of Rockland’s specialties—is important for engineering teams to be able to design and deploy tidal technology. It also helps assess the risks and costs of tidal power operations.

Currently, the company’s expertise in oceanographic instrumentation is used mostly in academic applications. Wolk says its systems are used by scientists and engineers in 25 countries around the world in disciplines such as climate research, coastal management and erosion studies, as well as fisheries research. Rockland, which has 18 employees, got involved in the issue of tidal power in 2012, when the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service (TCS) in London organized a meeting looking at technical barriers to tidal energy conversion devices, laying the groundwork for the development of the research consortium.

Six commercial and academic entities are involved in the Canada-UK research project, called In-situ Turbulence Replication Evaluation and Measurement, or InSTREAM. It began in November 2015 following a competition managed and financed by the Offshore Energy Research Association, a non-profit Nova Scotia-based research group, and Innovate UK, a government-funded business and innovation accelerator in Britain. The Government of Canada provided funding and other assistance to the Canadian partners, which include Dalhousie University and Black Rock Tidal. In Europe, the InSTREAM project was given the prestigious EUREKA designation.

The entities involved in the consortium are specialized in narrow fields of research, says Peter Stern, vice-president of production at Rockland and the project manager of InSTREAM. “It’s unparalleled in terms of its skill-sets.”

Stern says the objective is to develop sensors and methods at tidal energy sites to measure turbulence. The testing is being done both in the laboratory and in the field. The resulting data will reduce uncertainties in the design of tidal power production sites and devices, he says, ultimately decreasing the cost and risk of tidal power technology.

Tests are underway in both Canadian and UK waters where tidal power research is at the forefront. These include the FloWave Ocean Energy Research Facility in Edinburgh, the European Marine Energy Centre test site in the Orkney Islands of Scotland and the Fundy Ocean Research Centre for Energy site in Minas Passage, in the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. The tests are designed to reliably and consistently provide developers and manufacturers with data to evaluate the dynamic behaviour of tidal sites, which will help device manufacturers design equipment that will not suffer as much wear-and-tear from vibrations.

Wolk hopes the InSTREAM project, which is to be completed in the summer of 2018, will lead to a new market for its technology in commercial applications, which it would export to customers at each unique site where tidal power is developed. This will move Rockland from the academic to the operational market, Wolk says, adding this is “a requirement for us to continue to grow.”

He notes that beyond Canada and the UK, Japan and France are also very advanced in the field of tidal power research. All are places where the TCS has been helpful in getting Rockland “into the rooms with the deal-makers” in the industry.

“We’re using trade commissioners with great success throughout the world,” says Wolk, noting that the TCS is a “tremendous resource” that validates small companies like Rockland and gives them better access. “It’s always helpful when we go into a new global market to have the Canadian government behind us and the TCS holding our hand and opening doors for us.”

Rachel Soares, the trade commissioner who covers clean technologies and ocean technologies in London, says that several agreements between Canada and the UK have encouraged collaboration in marine renewable energy, acting as a catalyst for business and research partnerships.

“There are obvious synergies between Canada and the UK’s marine and tidal sectors,” she says, which have led to a number of memorandums of understanding, joint statements and joint research competitions. “The markets in Canada and the UK seem to be developing at a similar pace,” Soares says, making project development and supply-chain involvement in the two complementary.

Soares says that Rockland “has done a great job of making its presence known, of networking, of bringing together key players and of trying to create opportunities.”

One challenge is that the marine and tidal sector is nascent and pre-commercial, she notes, while other renewable technologies are coming close to grid parity with more traditional energy sources. “A lot of funding is still required to get most of these projects off the ground.”

Because of this, most companies in the sector are small and under-resourced. “The TCS can do a lot to help, providing services from market analysis to qualified contacts,” she says, adding that government support will continue to be required for the sector to become market-ready and commercialized.

Many technical issues need to be resolved to make tidal power viable, says Wolk, but he’s pleased that Rockland is playing a role in the technology, as well as the benefits it can bring to the issue of climate change. “This requires international collaboration to become a reality.”