05 May 2016 14:12:28 IST

The future of green is blue

Now is the time for India to look closely at the oceans’ potential

Vivekananda Rock, where India ends, is the confluence of two seas and an ocean. If you stand there (as I did recently) looking southwards into the vast emptiness of the Indian Ocean, there is a high possibility you will lose your orientation — you’ll forget where you are, and that will unsettle you.

You will also realise why the earth is called ‘watery planet’. Just lower your glance from the distant horizon to the rocks some 30 feet below you, and I bet you will grip the railing. For the waves are ferocious, roaring; as though sounding a war-cry, they pound the rocks relentlessly. Wait a few centuries, and the tiny, rocky island off the tip of the Indian peninsula, where Swami Vivekananda sojourned, will be conquered, subsumed into the waters.

But perhaps another thought will strike you. You will wonder about the power there is in these waters, and why it isn’t being tapped.

Old thought

As an idea, this is nothing new. There is evidence that humans have been thinking on those lines for at least 300 years. Oceans are full of energy. They swell; they tide in and tide out; waves batter the earth all round the clock, their underwater currents powerful.

Yes, mankind has known of this energy, but the pity is that this source cannot be easily harnessed. Tapping ocean energy has been like trying to harness a wild bull. But that was only till recently.

Things have finally begun to change. In the last decade — especially in the last five years — the world has seen heightened activity in ocean energy. Now, with combating climate change and saying goodbye to fossil fuels being imperative, the oceans seem more alive than ever before.

Just last month, a British company called Atlantis Resources signed up with an Indonesian energy company called SBS to build a 150 MW (a commercial scale) tidal energy plant. Note the nuance here — Indonesia is an oil producing country, and lies in the tropics. Yet, it is plumbing the ocean for energy.

Atlantis Resources was chosen probably because there are very few companies with a track record in this field. The British company is very close to completing the construction of the first phase of another tidal energy plant off Scotland coast — the MeyGen project, that is expected to supply electricity to Scottish Hydro Electric Transmission Ltd this summer from the first phase of the project. By 2020, MeyGen is expected to generate 298 MW of tidal energy.

Not very far from there, off the Atlantic coast of Wales, another 320 MW tidal energy project, called Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon project, is cruising towards the finish line.

Past instances

The Koreans were ahead of the British. The 245 MW Sihwa Lake Tidal Power Station has been in operation since 2011.

There are literally hundreds of others, with widely differing technologies, in the R&D stage. But leave them aside; Sihwa, MeyGen, Swansea, and a handful of others are commercial-scale plants. Looking at this, the message is clear. Ocean energy is beginning to make economic sense. It is beginning to look like a new gold rush.

Ocean tech

But before we proceed further, we need to understand ‘ocean energy’ a little better. Technologies to tap ocean energy fall under three broad categories.

Wave power : Using the power of the waves or ‘swells’. The machines used to tap wave power, typically, bob up and down on the water’s surface and have contrivances that convert the motion into electricity.


Tidal energy : In several places on the coasts, the tide rises and ebbs many times a day. If you have a house on the coast, the waterfront might be closer home in the mornings, but at a distance during the night. Tidal energy projects such as Sihwa and Swansea get the water to turn the turbines on their way in and on the way out too.

Tidal current or tidal stream : Projects like MeyGen have an array of turbines standing on the seabed. Seas and oceans are always in motion, like streams within the seas. (Remember the East Australian Current in Finding Nemo ?)


Sea water is 832 times denser than air. A 5-knot current is equivalent to 10 metres-per-second winds — wind energy companies would love a 10 mps wind site. A small turbine on the seabed can do the job of a giant windmill onshore.


Then, there is ‘ocean thermal’, which makes use of the temperature difference between the sea surface and at the depths, but that is still too far behind in the queue for commercialisation.

Now, since there is such a huge potential out there, what are we Indians doing about it?

Indian projects

Turns out, we have attempted quite a few projects — and given up, presumably due to economic reasons.

As far back as in 1982, two engineers from IIT, Madras began collecting ocean data, and in 1991, they built a small wave current plant in Vizhinjam, Kerala. It didn’t work well, and the project was decommissioned in 2011.

Around 2007, Gujarat Petroleum Corporation Ltd dreamed of a mega project, the Kalpsar Project, which would have a tidal energy component in it. The project is huge by any standard, with plans to build a 30-km wall across the Gulf of Khambat, creating an enormous lake that water would rush in and out of, in tandem with the tides.

Atlantis Energy was to be the technology partner. But for reasons that are not clear, the tidal energy part has been dropped. The rest of the project, which could cost ₹60,000 crore, is still being pursued by the Government of Gujarat.

There was also an ocean thermal experiment near Tuticorin, but that didn’t take off either.

However, now is the time for the country to take a closer look at the oceans. Technology is maturing, help is available and the distaste for fossil fuels is channelling funding into newer, clean technologies.

In 2014, rating and consultancy firm CRISIL came out with a report on ocean energy, which is basically a detailed backgrounder. CRISIL estimates the cost of wave power at ₹13 a kWhr.

Déjà vu? Solar was exactly at that price, less than five years ago. Today, solar tariffs are less than ₹5. As technology matures and volumes pick up, bringing the ₹13 down to an affordable number, would not be hard. It is just the will that is needed.

So, as you stand gripping the railing on the Vivekananda Rock, there is another message you may hear from the dashing waves: ‘I am full of energy. Come and tap me’.