How Scotland is using waves and bubbles to generate energy

KIRKWALL, Scotland — Ocean boosters like to compare the kinetic energy stored in the sea to a ginormous oil reserve that’s never going to run dry.

It doesn’t matter if the sun shines or the wind blows. The tides turn. You can set your watch to them. The trick is how to generate cost-effective, renewable electricity from that limitless, ceaseless motion. They’re working on the problem here on Scotland’s Orkney Islands.

When you first look at the ideas for ocean-energy devices, it does look a little … sci-fi. Underwater corkscrews. Oscillating hydrofoils. Tidal kites? Seriously.

And it gets more out there.

In Scotland, they want to plug this ocean energy into shoreside electrolyzers, which separate water (good old H20) into oxygen and green hydrogen, and use the gas bubbles to power … whisky distilleries.

And maybe someday to heat homes and schools — and power passenger ferries and planes that hop between islands.

It’s all hopeful and ingenious — and the world needs some hope, as the COP26 climate summit continues this week in Glasgow, and we wait to see if there’s enough ambition to avoid potentially catastrophic warming.

It’s worth knowing, though, that the sea here is also a graveyard, with once pioneering ocean energy prototypes now turning into rust, after much hyped start-ups were liquidated in bankruptcies.

But after two decades of trial-and-error, the sector’s backers say marine energy is getting there. They say tidal machines could begin to work alongside the far more developed energy systems, based on solar and wind power, within the decade.

The basic concept? Imagine taking an offshore wind turbine, with its rotor blades spun by moving air, and turning the thing upside down, dunking it into the sea, and letting the tidal currents turn the blades.

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