Categories
Science

Are Tides And Waves The Missing Piece Of The Green Energy Puzzle?

NEW YORK ― On a foggy October afternoon, a strange vessel chugged slowly through the East River’s mist toward Roosevelt Island. 

It looked almost like it was upside down: three 16-foot rotors, attached on a triangular metal base, sat motionless atop the deck of the rusted barge. They resembled propellers, but weren’t there to give the boat thrust. Instead, they’d be sent overboard, craned gingerly into the depths of the tidal flat that stretches from just east of Manhattan to the western shore of Queens. All you can see from the surface is a set of six bobbing white buoys, but about 30 feet down the turbines are harvesting the kinetic energy of tides to produce electricity. 

Verdant Energy’s East River project will generate just enough electricity to power 500 homes in the nation’s largest city, but it marks one of the first serious attempts in the United States to jump-start what could be a multibillion-dollar industry of tidal energy. More than a dozen states, including New York, have passed laws mandating zero-carbon electricity as a way to slow global warming. In a dense metropolis like New York City, there’s little space to glaze entire fields with solar panels or erect towering forests of wind turbines. And with the city’s last nuclear power plant set to close next year, it’s unclear how it will meet that goal with a meager mishmash of rooftop panels, battery storage and as-yet-unbuilt offshore wind turbines.  

That problem isn’t unique to New York, and it’s propelling a new wave of interest in an age-old concept of tidal energy. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that shifting tides and crashing waves could produce one-third of the United States’ electricity needs and roughly 10% of the European Union’s.

Costly supply chains and competition from other renewables and fossil fuels have frustrated the industry’s development for years, leaving behind a wake of bankrupt startups and fruitless experiments. Still, its advocates hope that growing interest and support from the incoming Biden administration could change that ― and New York’s experiment is just the start.

A Shift In The Tides

John Banigan, the CEO of Verdant Energy’s East River project, believes tidal power is poised for a breakthrough.



John Banigan, the CEO of Verdant Energy’s East River project, believes tidal power is poised for a breakthrough.

Standing on the eastern shore of Roosevelt Island, a quiet sliver of land in the middle of the East River, John Banigan ― a soft-spoken former investment banker with neatly combed blond hair and a natural fit for boat shoes and a polo shirt ― seemed antsy. His glasses kept fogging with the breath rising from his face mask. But it was the fog on the water that had disrupted the Verdant chief executive’s carefully laid plans. 

That afternoon, the barge was supposed to arrive before 3 p.m., allowing a small armada of tugboats and cranes to hoist the turbines into the water and place them in a precise spot Verdant surveyed and measured for years leading up to this moment. The foggy weather delayed the effort by hours. But this project required patience. The company ― which Banigan said has raised $46 million, half from Canadian, Irish and U.S. government grants, and half from private investors ― had already spent more than two decades designing turbines and assessing viable locations.

Now, at last, Banigan believes tidal power is poised for a breakthrough as countries scrambling to reduce climate-changing emissions look to generate an exponentially larger share of their electricity from zero-emissions sources. Tidal energy, he warned, doesn’t work everywhere. But until batteries become much smaller, cheaper and more efficient than they are today, producing power from the tides offers a dependable source of electricity to augment solar panels and wind turbines. 

“You can’t predict when the sun’s going to shine and the wind’s going to blow,” Banigan said. “There are slack tides, but they’re predictable.” 

Behind him, the four candy-cane smokestacks of the oil- and gas-burning Ravenswood Generating Station, one of New York’s dirtiest power plants, loomed as a visual reminder of what’s at stake in finding the right mix of clean alternatives to meet the city’s electricity needs.

In many ways, this nascent sector harks back to some of humanity’s earliest technologies. People have harnessed kinetic energy from the water as far back as the sixth century, when Irish monks rigged mills that used the flows from coastal inlets to grind grain. The United States built the world’s first hydroelectric dam in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1882, and dams remain the globe’s top source of renewable power. 

Top left: View of the hydroelectric dam of Rance Brittany, France, in 2019. This hydroelectric plant with tidal energy built



Top left: View of the hydroelectric dam of Rance Brittany, France, in 2019. This hydroelectric plant with tidal energy built on the estuary of Rance between Dinard and Saint-Malo was inaugurated in 1966. Top right: An employee walks in the underwater part of the La Rance tidal-turbine power plant in La Richardais, western France, in 2012. Bottom left: A photo from 2012 shows one of the 24 turbines of the La Rance power plant. Bottom right: The control room of the power plant in 2012.

But it wasn’t until 1966 that the energy from high and low tides started generating electricity. That year, French authorities in the province of Brittany erected the Rance Tidal Power Station. The 2,461-foot barrage of 24 turbines, stretched across an estuary of the Rance River, was the first tidal energy project in the world. 

Today it remains the second-largest ever constructed, which may say as much about the relative compactness of tidal projects as it does about how few have been deployed.

Over the past decade, global investment in solar and wind energy has routinely topped $200 billion per year, according to data from the energy research firm BloombergNEF. But marine energy investment all but evaporated after brief peaks in 2007 and in 2011, when South Korea completed the Sihwa Lake Tidal Power Station, the world’s largest tidal array, roughly four decades after the project was first proposed. 

But 2019 signaled a new shift, when the tidal power startup SIMEC Atlantis Energy generated enough electricity from a project off the northern coast of Scotland to power more than 2,200 homes. Unlike the projects in France and South Korea, which are part of a singular, dam-like structure that mimics the design of traditional hydroelectric plants, the Scottish project was designed as an array of underwater turbines, somewhat resembling a wind farm. 

That July, SIMEC Atlantis broke a record for what the company identified as “the longest period of uninterrupted generation from a multi-megawatt tidal turbine array ever achieved.” Last August, the company told the Securities and Exchange Commission that it was exporting more than 30 gigawatt hours of electricity to the grid.

But in that same filing, the firm reported a 47% increase in annual losses.

Costs remain high, and that looks unlikely to change until the tidal industry settles on a preferred equipment design. Arrays of rotors like those off Scotland or in the East River seem promising, and mimic the look and feel of windmills. But the size and shape of turbines, and how and whether to anchor them to the seafloor or float them on vessels, remain open questions. 

The sun rises behind Sihwa Lake Pylon VD702. The Sihwa Lake Tidal Power Station in South Korea is the world's largest tidal a



The sun rises behind Sihwa Lake Pylon VD702. The Sihwa Lake Tidal Power Station in South Korea is the world’s largest tidal array.

Government Support Rolls Out, Government Support Rolls In

The flow of that money has been far less predictable than the tides themselves. 

The United Kingdom, which has jagged coasts that offer a multitude of potential tidal resources, emerged as an early benefactor for tidal startups, offering generous payments for tidal energy fed onto the grid. But, in a show of how sensitive the industry is to small policy changes, the British government ultimately tweaked the rules to put tidal energy under the same category as offshore wind, a far more mature industry with an ironclad global supply chain and major corporate players already making money off turbines dotting the seas across Europe and Asia. Tidal energy couldn’t compete, the British Institution of Mechanical Engineers concluded last year. 

“The U.K. experience demonstrates the impact of public policy,” said Alisdair McLean, executive director of the Offshore Energy Research Association. “Combining tidal energy and offshore wind almost killed the tidal energy industry in Scotland.” 

The model for government support, he said, is in his native Nova Scotia. In 2009, the rural province on Canada’s eastern coast opened the Fundy Ocean Research Centre for Energy on the Bay of Fundy, considered one of the most promising tidal energy resources in the world. The facility includes five underwater berths with four subsea cables running from the bay to a substation that processes the power generated at tidal sites. The province then agreed to pay a high premium of more than $400 per megawatt-hour of electricity produced, and the Canadian government made direct investments in the companies that set up shop there. 

The U.S. has set up steep hurdles for companies hoping to operate here. Verdant submitted four telephone books’ worth of studies to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and ultimately required 23 permits from 14 different agencies to begin operating in the East River. Financial support, by contrast, has been more scattershot, coming from a handful of federal agencies, including the departments of Defense and Energy, and municipalities such as New York City. It hasn’t been enough. 

“We need subsidies to make us competitive with other alternative renewable sources,” Banigan said. 

Above: A time-lapse video shows the tides rolling in and out of Canada’s Bay of Fundy, considered one of the most promising tidal resources in the world.

The Biden administration has signaled its plans to increase federal research and support for clean energy technologies. But it’s unclear where marine energy might fall on that list of priorities. 

Even more uncertain is the price batteries would need to reach to wipe out any demand for a costly but predictable new generating method. Batteries cost $1,100 per kilowatt-hour in 2010, and fell 87% to $156 in 2019, according to BloombergNEF data released last year. By 2023, the consultancy forecast the average price to hit about $100 per kilowatt-hour. Investment in the metals needed to make batteries, including cobalt and nickel, lag far behind growing battery demand, estimates from the energy research firm Wood Mackenzie indicate, suggesting there could be a bottleneck in the supply chain. But if battery prices continue to fall before tidal companies can garner enough public support and build an efficient supply chain, it could smother the industry. 

“The benefit of predictable energy from tidal power becomes less powerful if solar-plus-battery or wind-plus-battery can provide the same predictability at a lower price,” McLean said. “That’s the challenge tidal energy faces: It’s got to get its costs down fast enough that it can continue to generate interest from policymakers.” 

The marine energy sector might draw more interest once technology to convert waves into power becomes viable. Unlike tidal resources, which are mainly concentrated in the Northern Hemisphere or near small islands, waves could be harvested on virtually any ocean coasts. 

“It’s promising because wave energy opportunity is even larger than the tidal opportunity by roughly an order of magnitude, especially on the U.S. West Coast,” said Levi Kilcher, the head of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s ocean energy resource research. “It’s really a large ocean and a lot of energy there, from the West Coast to the Alaskan Coast.” 

But in the last few years alone, roughly 90 designs for wave technology have been tested, from buoys that sit atop oceans to devices that sit on the seafloor and produce power as waves squish an attached bag. 

“The technology is lagging behind tidal,” said Andrea Copping, a researcher at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “It’s very hard to do, so it’s just not as advanced.” 

By the end of next year, Verdant plans to remove the test turbines in the East River and begin work on commercial models twice the size of those rotors. Banigan said the company would like to set up a manufacturing site somewhere in New York, possibly in the city, where advocates are pushing to repurpose industrial waterfront property in Brooklyn and the Bronx for clean energy manufacturing, or upstate, which would put Verdant closer to the Canadian market. But the first commercial projects the company has in the pipeline will be in northwest Wales, Banigan said. 

However, Copping said the future of the industry looks brightest in East Asia. 

“Between the Philippines and Indonesia, there are probably thousands and thousands of good sites and demand nearby if you run a cable from a tidal generator half a kilometer to shore,” she said. “Meanwhile Singapore is trying to set themselves up to be the supplier for all this technology in Asia. They really believe in it.” 

Banigan agrees. Northern Europe, he said, is Verdant’s first stop. But in the mid 2020s, he expects the market in East Asia to bloom. By 2050, he predicted the tidal industry could generate $70 billion a year. 

“We’re at something of a tipping point,” said Banigan, a former investment banker who joined the company after meeting a founder at a business event in Shanghai in 2011. “We see tremendous opportunity ahead.”

Categories
Science

The Scientist’s 2020 Gift Guide

Comfort for conservation

Socks for Animals was started by wildlife biologist Wes Larson as a way to educate the public about threatened species such as the pangolin, red panda, and narwhal. A portion of each sale is donated to a charity or scientist working with the species featured on your sock. Recipient Debahutee Roy Kar, for example, is a biologist at the Indian nonprofit Nature’s Foster who studies how habitat fragmentation affects the endangered golden langur monkey. Socks start at $10.

A gift for the mind

Why not pick out a new book for your loved one to enjoy with their new socks? All We Can Save features poetry and essays by women working towards uplifting solutions to climate change. If someone on your list got really into birding in 2020, try The Bird Way by science writer Jennifer Ackerman. For a compelling story about one naturalist’s journey to organize the world, there’s Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller, the cofounder of the NPR podcast Invisibilia. The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) by astrophysicist Katie Mack will certainly inspire some dinner table conversation, as will Explaining People, written by neurodivergent biochemist Camilla Pang. Lastly, if the science enthusiast you’re buying for wasn’t able to join The Scientist’s social club for our reading of Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, we certainly enjoyed it.

Origami microscope

The Foldscope emerged from a brainstorming session between two Stanford University scientists asking the question, “What is the best microscope you can build for under $1?” The answer, they discovered, was there in the paper they used to sketch their prototype. Foldscopes are a great way to engage with nature, and the company continues to send them throughout the world as a way of making science more accessible. You can purchase one for the microscopist on your list for $29.99 or donate directly in their honor to help send Foldscopes to classrooms worldwide.

COVID-19 plushy

Whether you want to cuddle it, burn it, or gift it, Giant Microbes has you covered with this COVID-19 plushy. Five percent of your purchase will go to one of three charities: Combating COVID-19 Fund, No Kid Hungry, or the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. Small plushies start at $14.95, but you can also buy a giant version for $39.95 or a “Class of 2020” plushy to celebrate those who graduated in such turbulent times for $18.95.

Genetic jewelry

Boutique Academia specializes in science-themed jewelry, including this set of friendship necklaces ($29.99), perfect for that pal you haven’t seen since the pandemic began. The virus and the antibody even bind! They also have accessories for those who love physics, microbiology, chemistry, and astronomy, among others. We’re fans of this tardigrade necklace, the neuron earrings, and the Avogadro’s number tie bar, each $24.99.

Support STEM

It feels especially important this year to support science. While we always suggest doing your own research on the activities and finances of charities before donating, we’ve included a few ideas here. 

For COVID-19 charities, consider donating to Get Us PPE, which provides personal protective equipment to frontline workers and under-resourced communities, the CDC Foundation, the WHO’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, or to EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that works to protect wildlife and the public from the emergence of disease.

The Scientist has featured several researchers this year involved in charitable initiatives. The Ora Lee Smith Cancer Research Foundation, founded by Scientist to Watch Hadiyah-Nicole Green, seeks to make cancer treatments affordable, accessible, and more effective. After the pandemic erased many summer research opportunities for Black, indigenous, and other undergraduates of color, Michael Johnson, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, started the National Summer Undergraduate Research Project as a way to facilitate remote mentorship. For a teaser of what you can look forward to in the January issue of the magazine, consider donating to conservation biologist Celine Frere’s group Detection Dogs for Conservation. Her specially trained dogs track and rescue rare animals, detect pests, and locate threatened native plants.

Lastly, consider donating to local science and natural history museums in your city that may be struggling due to the pandemic. 

CREDIT FOR OPENING IMAGE: © ISTOCK.COM, ALEXRATHS

Categories
Science

Are Tides And Waves The Missing Piece Of The Green Energy Puzzle?

NEW YORK ― On a foggy October afternoon, a strange vessel chugged slowly through the East River’s mist toward Roosevelt Island. 

It looked almost like it was upside down: three 16-foot rotors, attached on a triangular metal base, sat motionless atop the deck of the rusted barge. They resembled propellers, but weren’t there to give the boat thrust. Instead, they’d be sent overboard, craned gingerly into the depths of the tidal flat that stretches from just east of Manhattan to the western shore of Queens. All you can see from the surface is a set of six bobbing white buoys, but about 30 feet down the turbines are harvesting the kinetic energy of tides to produce electricity. 

Verdant Energy’s East River project will generate just enough electricity to power 500 homes in the nation’s largest city, but it marks one of the first serious attempts in the United States to jump-start what could be a multibillion-dollar industry of tidal energy. More than a dozen states, including New York, have passed laws mandating zero-carbon electricity as a way to slow global warming. In a dense metropolis like New York City, there’s little space to glaze entire fields with solar panels or erect towering forests of wind turbines. And with the city’s last nuclear power plant set to close next year, it’s unclear how it will meet that goal with a meager mishmash of rooftop panels, battery storage and as-yet-unbuilt offshore wind turbines.  

That problem isn’t unique to New York, and it’s propelling a new wave of interest in an age-old concept of tidal energy. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that shifting tides and crashing waves could produce one-third of the United States’ electricity needs and roughly 10% of the European Union’s.

Costly supply chains and competition from other renewables and fossil fuels have frustrated the industry’s development for years, leaving behind a wake of bankrupt startups and fruitless experiments. Still, its advocates hope that growing interest and support from the incoming Biden administration could change that ― and New York’s experiment is just the start.

A Shift In The Tides

John Banigan, the CEO of Verdant Energy’s East River project, believes tidal power is poised for a breakthrough.



John Banigan, the CEO of Verdant Energy’s East River project, believes tidal power is poised for a breakthrough.

Standing on the eastern shore of Roosevelt Island, a quiet sliver of land in the middle of the East River, John Banigan ― a soft-spoken former investment banker with neatly combed blond hair and a natural fit for boat shoes and a polo shirt ― seemed antsy. His glasses kept fogging with the breath rising from his face mask. But it was the fog on the water that had disrupted the Verdant chief executive’s carefully laid plans. 

That afternoon, the barge was supposed to arrive before 3 p.m., allowing a small armada of tugboats and cranes to hoist the turbines into the water and place them in a precise spot Verdant surveyed and measured for years leading up to this moment. The foggy weather delayed the effort by hours. But this project required patience. The company ― which Banigan said has raised $46 million, half from Canadian, Irish and U.S. government grants, and half from private investors ― had already spent more than two decades designing turbines and assessing viable locations.

Now, at last, Banigan believes tidal power is poised for a breakthrough as countries scrambling to reduce climate-changing emissions look to generate an exponentially larger share of their electricity from zero-emissions sources. Tidal energy, he warned, doesn’t work everywhere. But until batteries become much smaller, cheaper and more efficient than they are today, producing power from the tides offers a dependable source of electricity to augment solar panels and wind turbines. 

“You can’t predict when the sun’s going to shine and the wind’s going to blow,” Banigan said. “There are slack tides, but they’re predictable.” 

Behind him, the four candy-cane smokestacks of the oil- and gas-burning Ravenswood Generating Station, one of New York’s dirtiest power plants, loomed as a visual reminder of what’s at stake in finding the right mix of clean alternatives to meet the city’s electricity needs.

In many ways, this nascent sector harks back to some of humanity’s earliest technologies. People have harnessed kinetic energy from the water as far back as the sixth century, when Irish monks rigged mills that used the flows from coastal inlets to grind grain. The United States built the world’s first hydroelectric dam in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1882, and dams remain the globe’s top source of renewable power. 

Top left: View of the hydroelectric dam of Rance Brittany, France, in 2019. This hydroelectric plant with tidal energy built



Top left: View of the hydroelectric dam of Rance Brittany, France, in 2019. This hydroelectric plant with tidal energy built on the estuary of Rance between Dinard and Saint-Malo was inaugurated in 1966. Top right: An employee walks in the underwater part of the La Rance tidal-turbine power plant in La Richardais, western France, in 2012. Bottom left: A photo from 2012 shows one of the 24 turbines of the La Rance power plant. Bottom right: The control room of the power plant in 2012.

But it wasn’t until 1966 that the energy from high and low tides started generating electricity. That year, French authorities in the province of Brittany erected the Rance Tidal Power Station. The 2,461-foot barrage of 24 turbines, stretched across an estuary of the Rance River, was the first tidal energy project in the world. 

Today it remains the second-largest ever constructed, which may say as much about the relative compactness of tidal projects as it does about how few have been deployed.

Over the past decade, global investment in solar and wind energy has routinely topped $200 billion per year, according to data from the energy research firm BloombergNEF. But marine energy investment all but evaporated after brief peaks in 2007 and in 2011, when South Korea completed the Sihwa Lake Tidal Power Station, the world’s largest tidal array, roughly four decades after the project was first proposed. 

But 2019 signaled a new shift, when the tidal power startup SIMEC Atlantis Energy generated enough electricity from a project off the northern coast of Scotland to power more than 2,200 homes. Unlike the projects in France and South Korea, which are part of a singular, dam-like structure that mimics the design of traditional hydroelectric plants, the Scottish project was designed as an array of underwater turbines, somewhat resembling a wind farm. 

That July, SIMEC Atlantis broke a record for what the company identified as “the longest period of uninterrupted generation from a multi-megawatt tidal turbine array ever achieved.” Last August, the company told the Securities and Exchange Commission that it was exporting more than 30 gigawatt hours of electricity to the grid.

But in that same filing, the firm reported a 47% increase in annual losses.

Costs remain high, and that looks unlikely to change until the tidal industry settles on a preferred equipment design. Arrays of rotors like those off Scotland or in the East River seem promising, and mimic the look and feel of windmills. But the size and shape of turbines, and how and whether to anchor them to the seafloor or float them on vessels, remain open questions. 

The sun rises behind Sihwa Lake Pylon VD702. The Sihwa Lake Tidal Power Station in South Korea is the world's largest tidal a



The sun rises behind Sihwa Lake Pylon VD702. The Sihwa Lake Tidal Power Station in South Korea is the world’s largest tidal array.

Government Support Rolls Out, Government Support Rolls In

The flow of that money has been far less predictable than the tides themselves. 

The United Kingdom, which has jagged coasts that offer a multitude of potential tidal resources, emerged as an early benefactor for tidal startups, offering generous payments for tidal energy fed onto the grid. But, in a show of how sensitive the industry is to small policy changes, the British government ultimately tweaked the rules to put tidal energy under the same category as offshore wind, a far more mature industry with an ironclad global supply chain and major corporate players already making money off turbines dotting the seas across Europe and Asia. Tidal energy couldn’t compete, the British Institution of Mechanical Engineers concluded last year. 

“The U.K. experience demonstrates the impact of public policy,” said Alisdair McLean, executive director of the Offshore Energy Research Association. “Combining tidal energy and offshore wind almost killed the tidal energy industry in Scotland.” 

The model for government support, he said, is in his native Nova Scotia. In 2009, the rural province on Canada’s eastern coast opened the Fundy Ocean Research Centre for Energy on the Bay of Fundy, considered one of the most promising tidal energy resources in the world. The facility includes five underwater berths with four subsea cables running from the bay to a substation that processes the power generated at tidal sites. The province then agreed to pay a high premium of more than $400 per megawatt-hour of electricity produced, and the Canadian government made direct investments in the companies that set up shop there. 

The U.S. has set up steep hurdles for companies hoping to operate here. Verdant submitted four telephone books’ worth of studies to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and ultimately required 23 permits from 14 different agencies to begin operating in the East River. Financial support, by contrast, has been more scattershot, coming from a handful of federal agencies, including the departments of Defense and Energy, and municipalities such as New York City. It hasn’t been enough. 

“We need subsidies to make us competitive with other alternative renewable sources,” Banigan said. 

Above: A time-lapse video shows the tides rolling in and out of Canada’s Bay of Fundy, considered one of the most promising tidal resources in the world.

The Biden administration has signaled its plans to increase federal research and support for clean energy technologies. But it’s unclear where marine energy might fall on that list of priorities. 

Even more uncertain is the price batteries would need to reach to wipe out any demand for a costly but predictable new generating method. Batteries cost $1,100 per kilowatt-hour in 2010, and fell 87% to $156 in 2019, according to BloombergNEF data released last year. By 2023, the consultancy forecast the average price to hit about $100 per kilowatt-hour. Investment in the metals needed to make batteries, including cobalt and nickel, lag far behind growing battery demand, estimates from the energy research firm Wood Mackenzie indicate, suggesting there could be a bottleneck in the supply chain. But if battery prices continue to fall before tidal companies can garner enough public support and build an efficient supply chain, it could smother the industry. 

“The benefit of predictable energy from tidal power becomes less powerful if solar-plus-battery or wind-plus-battery can provide the same predictability at a lower price,” McLean said. “That’s the challenge tidal energy faces: It’s got to get its costs down fast enough that it can continue to generate interest from policymakers.” 

The marine energy sector might draw more interest once technology to convert waves into power becomes viable. Unlike tidal resources, which are mainly concentrated in the Northern Hemisphere or near small islands, waves could be harvested on virtually any ocean coasts. 

“It’s promising because wave energy opportunity is even larger than the tidal opportunity by roughly an order of magnitude, especially on the U.S. West Coast,” said Levi Kilcher, the head of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s ocean energy resource research. “It’s really a large ocean and a lot of energy there, from the West Coast to the Alaskan Coast.” 

But in the last few years alone, roughly 90 designs for wave technology have been tested, from buoys that sit atop oceans to devices that sit on the seafloor and produce power as waves squish an attached bag. 

“The technology is lagging behind tidal,” said Andrea Copping, a researcher at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “It’s very hard to do, so it’s just not as advanced.” 

By the end of next year, Verdant plans to remove the test turbines in the East River and begin work on commercial models twice the size of those rotors. Banigan said the company would like to set up a manufacturing site somewhere in New York, possibly in the city, where advocates are pushing to repurpose industrial waterfront property in Brooklyn and the Bronx for clean energy manufacturing, or upstate, which would put Verdant closer to the Canadian market. But the first commercial projects the company has in the pipeline will be in northwest Wales, Banigan said. 

However, Copping said the future of the industry looks brightest in East Asia. 

“Between the Philippines and Indonesia, there are probably thousands and thousands of good sites and demand nearby if you run a cable from a tidal generator half a kilometer to shore,” she said. “Meanwhile Singapore is trying to set themselves up to be the supplier for all this technology in Asia. They really believe in it.” 

Banigan agrees. Northern Europe, he said, is Verdant’s first stop. But in the mid 2020s, he expects the market in East Asia to bloom. By 2050, he predicted the tidal industry could generate $70 billion a year. 

“We’re at something of a tipping point,” said Banigan, a former investment banker who joined the company after meeting a founder at a business event in Shanghai in 2011. “We see tremendous opportunity ahead.”

Categories
Science

The Scientist’s 2020 Gift Guide

Comfort for conservation

Socks for Animals was started by wildlife biologist Wes Larson as a way to educate the public about threatened species such as the pangolin, red panda, and narwhal. A portion of each sale is donated to a charity or scientist working with the species featured on your sock. Recipient Debahutee Roy Kar, for example, is a biologist at the Indian nonprofit Nature’s Foster who studies how habitat fragmentation affects the endangered golden langur monkey. Socks start at $10.

A gift for the mind

Why not pick out a new book for your loved one to enjoy with their new socks? All We Can Save features poetry and essays by women working towards uplifting solutions to climate change. If someone on your list got really into birding in 2020, try The Bird Way by science writer Jennifer Ackerman. For a compelling story about one naturalist’s journey to organize the world, there’s Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller, the cofounder of the NPR podcast Invisibilia. The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) by astrophysicist Katie Mack will certainly inspire some dinner table conversation, as will Explaining People, written by neurodivergent biochemist Camilla Pang. Lastly, if the science enthusiast you’re buying for wasn’t able to join The Scientist’s social club for our reading of Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, we certainly enjoyed it.

Origami microscope

The Foldscope emerged from a brainstorming session between two Stanford University scientists asking the question, “What is the best microscope you can build for under $1?” The answer, they discovered, was there in the paper they used to sketch their prototype. Foldscopes are a great way to engage with nature, and the company continues to send them throughout the world as a way of making science more accessible. You can purchase one for the microscopist on your list for $29.99 or donate directly in their honor to help send Foldscopes to classrooms worldwide.

COVID-19 plushy

Whether you want to cuddle it, burn it, or gift it, Giant Microbes has you covered with this COVID-19 plushy. Five percent of your purchase will go to one of three charities: Combating COVID-19 Fund, No Kid Hungry, or the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. Small plushies start at $14.95, but you can also buy a giant version for $39.95 or a “Class of 2020” plushy to celebrate those who graduated in such turbulent times for $18.95.

Genetic jewelry

Boutique Academia specializes in science-themed jewelry, including this set of friendship necklaces ($29.99), perfect for that pal you haven’t seen since the pandemic began. The virus and the antibody even bind! They also have accessories for those who love physics, microbiology, chemistry, and astronomy, among others. We’re fans of this tardigrade necklace, the neuron earrings, and the Avogadro’s number tie bar, each $24.99.

Support STEM

It feels especially important this year to support science. While we always suggest doing your own research on the activities and finances of charities before donating, we’ve included a few ideas here. 

For COVID-19 charities, consider donating to Get Us PPE, which provides personal protective equipment to frontline workers and under-resourced communities, the CDC Foundation, the WHO’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, or to EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that works to protect wildlife and the public from the emergence of disease.

The Scientist has featured several researchers this year involved in charitable initiatives. The Ora Lee Smith Cancer Research Foundation, founded by Scientist to Watch Hadiyah-Nicole Green, seeks to make cancer treatments affordable, accessible, and more effective. After the pandemic erased many summer research opportunities for Black, indigenous, and other undergraduates of color, Michael Johnson, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, started the National Summer Undergraduate Research Project as a way to facilitate remote mentorship. For a teaser of what you can look forward to in the January issue of the magazine, consider donating to conservation biologist Celine Frere’s group Detection Dogs for Conservation. Her specially trained dogs track and rescue rare animals, detect pests, and locate threatened native plants.

Lastly, consider donating to local science and natural history museums in your city that may be struggling due to the pandemic. 

CREDIT FOR OPENING IMAGE: © ISTOCK.COM, ALEXRATHS

Categories
Science

Are Tides And Waves The Missing Piece Of The Green Energy Puzzle?

NEW YORK ― On a foggy October afternoon, a strange vessel chugged slowly through the East River’s mist toward Roosevelt Island. 

It looked almost like it was upside down: three 16-foot rotors, attached on a triangular metal base, sat motionless atop the deck of the rusted barge. They resembled propellers, but weren’t there to give the boat thrust. Instead, they’d be sent overboard, craned gingerly into the depths of the tidal flat that stretches from just east of Manhattan to the western shore of Queens. All you can see from the surface is a set of six bobbing white buoys, but about 30 feet down the turbines are harvesting the kinetic energy of tides to produce electricity. 

Verdant Energy’s East River project will generate just enough electricity to power 500 homes in the nation’s largest city, but it marks one of the first serious attempts in the United States to jump-start what could be a multibillion-dollar industry of tidal energy. More than a dozen states, including New York, have passed laws mandating zero-carbon electricity as a way to slow global warming. In a dense metropolis like New York City, there’s little space to glaze entire fields with solar panels or erect towering forests of wind turbines. And with the city’s last nuclear power plant set to close next year, it’s unclear how it will meet that goal with a meager mishmash of rooftop panels, battery storage and as-yet-unbuilt offshore wind turbines.  

That problem isn’t unique to New York, and it’s propelling a new wave of interest in an age-old concept of tidal energy. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that shifting tides and crashing waves could produce one-third of the United States’ electricity needs and roughly 10% of the European Union’s.

Costly supply chains and competition from other renewables and fossil fuels have frustrated the industry’s development for years, leaving behind a wake of bankrupt startups and fruitless experiments. Still, its advocates hope that growing interest and support from the incoming Biden administration could change that ― and New York’s experiment is just the start.

A Shift In The Tides

John Banigan, the CEO of Verdant Energy’s East River project, believes tidal power is poised for a breakthrough.



John Banigan, the CEO of Verdant Energy’s East River project, believes tidal power is poised for a breakthrough.

Standing on the eastern shore of Roosevelt Island, a quiet sliver of land in the middle of the East River, John Banigan ― a soft-spoken former investment banker with neatly combed blond hair and a natural fit for boat shoes and a polo shirt ― seemed antsy. His glasses kept fogging with the breath rising from his face mask. But it was the fog on the water that had disrupted the Verdant chief executive’s carefully laid plans. 

That afternoon, the barge was supposed to arrive before 3 p.m., allowing a small armada of tugboats and cranes to hoist the turbines into the water and place them in a precise spot Verdant surveyed and measured for years leading up to this moment. The foggy weather delayed the effort by hours. But this project required patience. The company ― which Banigan said has raised $46 million, half from Canadian, Irish and U.S. government grants, and half from private investors ― had already spent more than two decades designing turbines and assessing viable locations.

Now, at last, Banigan believes tidal power is poised for a breakthrough as countries scrambling to reduce climate-changing emissions look to generate an exponentially larger share of their electricity from zero-emissions sources. Tidal energy, he warned, doesn’t work everywhere. But until batteries become much smaller, cheaper and more efficient than they are today, producing power from the tides offers a dependable source of electricity to augment solar panels and wind turbines. 

“You can’t predict when the sun’s going to shine and the wind’s going to blow,” Banigan said. “There are slack tides, but they’re predictable.” 

Behind him, the four candy-cane smokestacks of the oil- and gas-burning Ravenswood Generating Station, one of New York’s dirtiest power plants, loomed as a visual reminder of what’s at stake in finding the right mix of clean alternatives to meet the city’s electricity needs.

In many ways, this nascent sector harks back to some of humanity’s earliest technologies. People have harnessed kinetic energy from the water as far back as the sixth century, when Irish monks rigged mills that used the flows from coastal inlets to grind grain. The United States built the world’s first hydroelectric dam in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1882, and dams remain the globe’s top source of renewable power. 

Top left: View of the hydroelectric dam of Rance Brittany, France, in 2019. This hydroelectric plant with tidal energy built



Top left: View of the hydroelectric dam of Rance Brittany, France, in 2019. This hydroelectric plant with tidal energy built on the estuary of Rance between Dinard and Saint-Malo was inaugurated in 1966. Top right: An employee walks in the underwater part of the La Rance tidal-turbine power plant in La Richardais, western France, in 2012. Bottom left: A photo from 2012 shows one of the 24 turbines of the La Rance power plant. Bottom right: The control room of the power plant in 2012.

But it wasn’t until 1966 that the energy from high and low tides started generating electricity. That year, French authorities in the province of Brittany erected the Rance Tidal Power Station. The 2,461-foot barrage of 24 turbines, stretched across an estuary of the Rance River, was the first tidal energy project in the world. 

Today it remains the second-largest ever constructed, which may say as much about the relative compactness of tidal projects as it does about how few have been deployed.

Over the past decade, global investment in solar and wind energy has routinely topped $200 billion per year, according to data from the energy research firm BloombergNEF. But marine energy investment all but evaporated after brief peaks in 2007 and in 2011, when South Korea completed the Sihwa Lake Tidal Power Station, the world’s largest tidal array, roughly four decades after the project was first proposed. 

But 2019 signaled a new shift, when the tidal power startup SIMEC Atlantis Energy generated enough electricity from a project off the northern coast of Scotland to power more than 2,200 homes. Unlike the projects in France and South Korea, which are part of a singular, dam-like structure that mimics the design of traditional hydroelectric plants, the Scottish project was designed as an array of underwater turbines, somewhat resembling a wind farm. 

That July, SIMEC Atlantis broke a record for what the company identified as “the longest period of uninterrupted generation from a multi-megawatt tidal turbine array ever achieved.” Last August, the company told the Securities and Exchange Commission that it was exporting more than 30 gigawatt hours of electricity to the grid.

But in that same filing, the firm reported a 47% increase in annual losses.

Costs remain high, and that looks unlikely to change until the tidal industry settles on a preferred equipment design. Arrays of rotors like those off Scotland or in the East River seem promising, and mimic the look and feel of windmills. But the size and shape of turbines, and how and whether to anchor them to the seafloor or float them on vessels, remain open questions. 

The sun rises behind Sihwa Lake Pylon VD702. The Sihwa Lake Tidal Power Station in South Korea is the world's largest tidal a



The sun rises behind Sihwa Lake Pylon VD702. The Sihwa Lake Tidal Power Station in South Korea is the world’s largest tidal array.

Government Support Rolls Out, Government Support Rolls In

The flow of that money has been far less predictable than the tides themselves. 

The United Kingdom, which has jagged coasts that offer a multitude of potential tidal resources, emerged as an early benefactor for tidal startups, offering generous payments for tidal energy fed onto the grid. But, in a show of how sensitive the industry is to small policy changes, the British government ultimately tweaked the rules to put tidal energy under the same category as offshore wind, a far more mature industry with an ironclad global supply chain and major corporate players already making money off turbines dotting the seas across Europe and Asia. Tidal energy couldn’t compete, the British Institution of Mechanical Engineers concluded last year. 

“The U.K. experience demonstrates the impact of public policy,” said Alisdair McLean, executive director of the Offshore Energy Research Association. “Combining tidal energy and offshore wind almost killed the tidal energy industry in Scotland.” 

The model for government support, he said, is in his native Nova Scotia. In 2009, the rural province on Canada’s eastern coast opened the Fundy Ocean Research Centre for Energy on the Bay of Fundy, considered one of the most promising tidal energy resources in the world. The facility includes five underwater berths with four subsea cables running from the bay to a substation that processes the power generated at tidal sites. The province then agreed to pay a high premium of more than $400 per megawatt-hour of electricity produced, and the Canadian government made direct investments in the companies that set up shop there. 

The U.S. has set up steep hurdles for companies hoping to operate here. Verdant submitted four telephone books’ worth of studies to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and ultimately required 23 permits from 14 different agencies to begin operating in the East River. Financial support, by contrast, has been more scattershot, coming from a handful of federal agencies, including the departments of Defense and Energy, and municipalities such as New York City. It hasn’t been enough. 

“We need subsidies to make us competitive with other alternative renewable sources,” Banigan said. 

Above: A time-lapse video shows the tides rolling in and out of Canada’s Bay of Fundy, considered one of the most promising tidal resources in the world.

The Biden administration has signaled its plans to increase federal research and support for clean energy technologies. But it’s unclear where marine energy might fall on that list of priorities. 

Even more uncertain is the price batteries would need to reach to wipe out any demand for a costly but predictable new generating method. Batteries cost $1,100 per kilowatt-hour in 2010, and fell 87% to $156 in 2019, according to BloombergNEF data released last year. By 2023, the consultancy forecast the average price to hit about $100 per kilowatt-hour. Investment in the metals needed to make batteries, including cobalt and nickel, lag far behind growing battery demand, estimates from the energy research firm Wood Mackenzie indicate, suggesting there could be a bottleneck in the supply chain. But if battery prices continue to fall before tidal companies can garner enough public support and build an efficient supply chain, it could smother the industry. 

“The benefit of predictable energy from tidal power becomes less powerful if solar-plus-battery or wind-plus-battery can provide the same predictability at a lower price,” McLean said. “That’s the challenge tidal energy faces: It’s got to get its costs down fast enough that it can continue to generate interest from policymakers.” 

The marine energy sector might draw more interest once technology to convert waves into power becomes viable. Unlike tidal resources, which are mainly concentrated in the Northern Hemisphere or near small islands, waves could be harvested on virtually any ocean coasts. 

“It’s promising because wave energy opportunity is even larger than the tidal opportunity by roughly an order of magnitude, especially on the U.S. West Coast,” said Levi Kilcher, the head of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s ocean energy resource research. “It’s really a large ocean and a lot of energy there, from the West Coast to the Alaskan Coast.” 

But in the last few years alone, roughly 90 designs for wave technology have been tested, from buoys that sit atop oceans to devices that sit on the seafloor and produce power as waves squish an attached bag. 

“The technology is lagging behind tidal,” said Andrea Copping, a researcher at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “It’s very hard to do, so it’s just not as advanced.” 

By the end of next year, Verdant plans to remove the test turbines in the East River and begin work on commercial models twice the size of those rotors. Banigan said the company would like to set up a manufacturing site somewhere in New York, possibly in the city, where advocates are pushing to repurpose industrial waterfront property in Brooklyn and the Bronx for clean energy manufacturing, or upstate, which would put Verdant closer to the Canadian market. But the first commercial projects the company has in the pipeline will be in northwest Wales, Banigan said. 

However, Copping said the future of the industry looks brightest in East Asia. 

“Between the Philippines and Indonesia, there are probably thousands and thousands of good sites and demand nearby if you run a cable from a tidal generator half a kilometer to shore,” she said. “Meanwhile Singapore is trying to set themselves up to be the supplier for all this technology in Asia. They really believe in it.” 

Banigan agrees. Northern Europe, he said, is Verdant’s first stop. But in the mid 2020s, he expects the market in East Asia to bloom. By 2050, he predicted the tidal industry could generate $70 billion a year. 

“We’re at something of a tipping point,” said Banigan, a former investment banker who joined the company after meeting a founder at a business event in Shanghai in 2011. “We see tremendous opportunity ahead.”

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Science

The Scientist’s 2020 Gift Guide

Comfort for conservation

Socks for Animals was started by wildlife biologist Wes Larson as a way to educate the public about threatened species such as the pangolin, red panda, and narwhal. A portion of each sale is donated to a charity or scientist working with the species featured on your sock. Recipient Debahutee Roy Kar, for example, is a biologist at the Indian nonprofit Nature’s Foster who studies how habitat fragmentation affects the endangered golden langur monkey. Socks start at $10.

A gift for the mind

Why not pick out a new book for your loved one to enjoy with their new socks? All We Can Save features poetry and essays by women working towards uplifting solutions to climate change. If someone on your list got really into birding in 2020, try The Bird Way by science writer Jennifer Ackerman. For a compelling story about one naturalist’s journey to organize the world, there’s Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller, the cofounder of the NPR podcast Invisibilia. The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) by astrophysicist Katie Mack will certainly inspire some dinner table conversation, as will Explaining People, written by neurodivergent biochemist Camilla Pang. Lastly, if the science enthusiast you’re buying for wasn’t able to join The Scientist’s social club for our reading of Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, we certainly enjoyed it.

Origami microscope

The Foldscope emerged from a brainstorming session between two Stanford University scientists asking the question, “What is the best microscope you can build for under $1?” The answer, they discovered, was there in the paper they used to sketch their prototype. Foldscopes are a great way to engage with nature, and the company continues to send them throughout the world as a way of making science more accessible. You can purchase one for the microscopist on your list for $29.99 or donate directly in their honor to help send Foldscopes to classrooms worldwide.

COVID-19 plushy

Whether you want to cuddle it, burn it, or gift it, Giant Microbes has you covered with this COVID-19 plushy. Five percent of your purchase will go to one of three charities: Combating COVID-19 Fund, No Kid Hungry, or the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. Small plushies start at $14.95, but you can also buy a giant version for $39.95 or a “Class of 2020” plushy to celebrate those who graduated in such turbulent times for $18.95.

Genetic jewelry

Boutique Academia specializes in science-themed jewelry, including this set of friendship necklaces ($29.99), perfect for that pal you haven’t seen since the pandemic began. The virus and the antibody even bind! They also have accessories for those who love physics, microbiology, chemistry, and astronomy, among others. We’re fans of this tardigrade necklace, the neuron earrings, and the Avogadro’s number tie bar, each $24.99.

Support STEM

It feels especially important this year to support science. While we always suggest doing your own research on the activities and finances of charities before donating, we’ve included a few ideas here. 

For COVID-19 charities, consider donating to Get Us PPE, which provides personal protective equipment to frontline workers and under-resourced communities, the CDC Foundation, the WHO’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, or to EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that works to protect wildlife and the public from the emergence of disease.

The Scientist has featured several researchers this year involved in charitable initiatives. The Ora Lee Smith Cancer Research Foundation, founded by Scientist to Watch Hadiyah-Nicole Green, seeks to make cancer treatments affordable, accessible, and more effective. After the pandemic erased many summer research opportunities for Black, indigenous, and other undergraduates of color, Michael Johnson, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, started the National Summer Undergraduate Research Project as a way to facilitate remote mentorship. For a teaser of what you can look forward to in the January issue of the magazine, consider donating to conservation biologist Celine Frere’s group Detection Dogs for Conservation. Her specially trained dogs track and rescue rare animals, detect pests, and locate threatened native plants.

Lastly, consider donating to local science and natural history museums in your city that may be struggling due to the pandemic. 

CREDIT FOR OPENING IMAGE: © ISTOCK.COM, ALEXRATHS

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Shadow Robot: AI Algorithms Bring Robot Hands One Step Closer to Human

Human and Robot Hands

Shadow Dexterous Hand. Credit: Shadow Robot Company

  • The Shadow Robot Dexterous Hand is comparable to a human hand, reproducing all of its degrees of freedom
  • While dexterous manipulation of objects is a fundamental everyday task for humans, it is still very challenging for autonomous robotic hands to master
  • Researchers at WMG, University of Warwick, have developed novel artificial intelligence algorithms so the robot can learn how to manipulate objects just like humans do
  • In simulated environments, the robotic hands learn on their own how to coordinate movements and execute tasks like throwing a ball to each other and spinning a pen

The Shadow Robot Dexterous Hand is a robot hand, with size, shape, and movement capabilities similar to those of a human hand. To give the robotic hand the ability to learn how to manipulate objects researchers from WMG, University of Warwick, have developed new AI algorithms.

Robot hands can be used in many applications, such as manufacturing, surgery and dangerous activities like nuclear decommissioning. For instance, robotic hands can be very useful in computer assembly where assembling microchips requires a level of precision that only human hands can currently achieve. Thanks to the utilization of robot hands in assembly lines, higher productivity may be achieved whilst securing reduced exposure from work risk situations to human workers.

In the paper, ‘Solving Challenging Dexterous Manipulation Tasks With Trajectory Optimisation and Reinforcement Learning,’ researchers Professor Giovanni Montana and Dr. Henry Charlesworth from WMG, University of Warwick have developed new AI algorithms – or the “brain” – required to learn how to coordinate the fingers’ movements and enable manipulation.

Using physically realistic simulations of Shadow’s robotic hand, the researchers have been able to make two hands pass and throw objects to each other, as well as spin a pen between its fingers. The algorithms however are not limited to these tasks but can learn any task as long as it can be simulated. The 3D simulations were developed using MuJoCo (Multi-Joint Dynamics with Contact), a physics engine from the University of Washington.

The researchers’ approach uses two algorithms. Initially, a planning algorithm produces a few approximate examples of how the hand should be performing a particular task. These examples are then used by a reinforcement learning algorithm that masters the manipulation skills on its own. By taking this approach, the researchers have been able to produce significantly better performance compared to existing methodologies. The simulation environments have been made publicly available for any researcher to use.

Robot Hand Writing

Shadow Dexterous Hand. Credit: Shadow Robot Company

Now that the algorithms have been successful in the simulations, Professor Montana’s team will continue to work closely with Shadow Robot and test the AI methodology on real robotic hardware, which could see the hand advance one step closer to use in the real day to day life.

In a second paper, ‘PlanGAN: Model-based Planning With Sparse Rewards and Multiple Goals,’ to be presented at the 2021 NeurIPS conference, the WMG researchers have also developed a novel and general AI approach that enables robots to learn tasks such as reaching and moving objects, which will further improve hand manipulation applications.

Professor Giovanni Montana, from WMG, University of Warwick comments: “The future of digitalization relies on AI algorithms that can learn autonomously, and to be able to develop algorithms that give Shadow Robot’s hand the ability to operate like a real one is without any human input is an exciting step forward. These autonomous hands could be used in the future to deliver robotic surgeons, to increase the productivity of assembly lines and to replace humans in dangerous jobs such as bomb disposal.”

“In future work, we will let the robots perceive the environment as accurately as humans do, not only through computer vision algorithms that can see the world, but through sensors that detect temperature, force, and vibrations so the robot can learn what to do when it feels those sensations.”

Rich Walker, Managing Director of the Shadow Robot Company, in London, comments:
“ When we started building dexterous hands, it was because there was no way to get hold of one without building it! 20 years later, we are now seeing researchers like Giovanni deliver the promise of the hardware by creating algorithms clever enough to control the robot hand – soon perhaps we will see super-human performance?”

References:

“Solving Challenging Dexterous Manipulation Tasks With Trajectory Optimisation and Reinforcement Learning” by Henry Charlesworth and Giovanni Montana, 9 September 2020, Computer Science > Robotics.
arXiv: 2009.05104

“PlanGAN: Model-based Planning With Sparse Rewards and Multiple Goals” by Henry Charlesworth and Giovanni Montana, 1 June 2020, Computer Science > Machine Learning.
arXiv: 2006.00900

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Are Tides And Waves The Missing Piece Of The Green Energy Puzzle?

NEW YORK ― On a foggy October afternoon, a strange vessel chugged slowly through the East River’s mist toward Roosevelt Island. 

It looked almost like it was upside down: three 16-foot rotors, attached on a triangular metal base, sat motionless atop the deck of the rusted barge. They resembled propellers, but weren’t there to give the boat thrust. Instead, they’d be sent overboard, craned gingerly into the depths of the tidal flat that stretches from just east of Manhattan to the western shore of Queens. All you can see from the surface is a set of six bobbing white buoys, but about 30 feet down the turbines are harvesting the kinetic energy of tides to produce electricity. 

Verdant Energy’s East River project will generate just enough electricity to power 500 homes in the nation’s largest city, but it marks one of the first serious attempts in the United States to jump-start what could be a multibillion-dollar industry of tidal energy. More than a dozen states, including New York, have passed laws mandating zero-carbon electricity as a way to slow global warming. In a dense metropolis like New York City, there’s little space to glaze entire fields with solar panels or erect towering forests of wind turbines. And with the city’s last nuclear power plant set to close next year, it’s unclear how it will meet that goal with a meager mishmash of rooftop panels, battery storage and as-yet-unbuilt offshore wind turbines.  

That problem isn’t unique to New York, and it’s propelling a new wave of interest in an age-old concept of tidal energy. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that shifting tides and crashing waves could produce one-third of the United States’ electricity needs and roughly 10% of the European Union’s.

Costly supply chains and competition from other renewables and fossil fuels have frustrated the industry’s development for years, leaving behind a wake of bankrupt startups and fruitless experiments. Still, its advocates hope that growing interest and support from the incoming Biden administration could change that ― and New York’s experiment is just the start.

A Shift In The Tides

John Banigan, the CEO of Verdant Energy’s East River project, believes tidal power is poised for a breakthrough.



John Banigan, the CEO of Verdant Energy’s East River project, believes tidal power is poised for a breakthrough.

Standing on the eastern shore of Roosevelt Island, a quiet sliver of land in the middle of the East River, John Banigan ― a soft-spoken former investment banker with neatly combed blond hair and a natural fit for boat shoes and a polo shirt ― seemed antsy. His glasses kept fogging with the breath rising from his face mask. But it was the fog on the water that had disrupted the Verdant chief executive’s carefully laid plans. 

That afternoon, the barge was supposed to arrive before 3 p.m., allowing a small armada of tugboats and cranes to hoist the turbines into the water and place them in a precise spot Verdant surveyed and measured for years leading up to this moment. The foggy weather delayed the effort by hours. But this project required patience. The company ― which Banigan said has raised $46 million, half from Canadian, Irish and U.S. government grants, and half from private investors ― had already spent more than two decades designing turbines and assessing viable locations.

Now, at last, Banigan believes tidal power is poised for a breakthrough as countries scrambling to reduce climate-changing emissions look to generate an exponentially larger share of their electricity from zero-emissions sources. Tidal energy, he warned, doesn’t work everywhere. But until batteries become much smaller, cheaper and more efficient than they are today, producing power from the tides offers a dependable source of electricity to augment solar panels and wind turbines. 

“You can’t predict when the sun’s going to shine and the wind’s going to blow,” Banigan said. “There are slack tides, but they’re predictable.” 

Behind him, the four candy-cane smokestacks of the oil- and gas-burning Ravenswood Generating Station, one of New York’s dirtiest power plants, loomed as a visual reminder of what’s at stake in finding the right mix of clean alternatives to meet the city’s electricity needs.

In many ways, this nascent sector harks back to some of humanity’s earliest technologies. People have harnessed kinetic energy from the water as far back as the sixth century, when Irish monks rigged mills that used the flows from coastal inlets to grind grain. The United States built the world’s first hydroelectric dam in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1882, and dams remain the globe’s top source of renewable power. 

Top left: View of the hydroelectric dam of Rance Brittany, France, in 2019. This hydroelectric plant with tidal energy built



Top left: View of the hydroelectric dam of Rance Brittany, France, in 2019. This hydroelectric plant with tidal energy built on the estuary of Rance between Dinard and Saint-Malo was inaugurated in 1966. Top right: An employee walks in the underwater part of the La Rance tidal-turbine power plant in La Richardais, western France, in 2012. Bottom left: A photo from 2012 shows one of the 24 turbines of the La Rance power plant. Bottom right: The control room of the power plant in 2012.

But it wasn’t until 1966 that the energy from high and low tides started generating electricity. That year, French authorities in the province of Brittany erected the Rance Tidal Power Station. The 2,461-foot barrage of 24 turbines, stretched across an estuary of the Rance River, was the first tidal energy project in the world. 

Today it remains the second-largest ever constructed, which may say as much about the relative compactness of tidal projects as it does about how few have been deployed.

Over the past decade, global investment in solar and wind energy has routinely topped $200 billion per year, according to data from the energy research firm BloombergNEF. But marine energy investment all but evaporated after brief peaks in 2007 and in 2011, when South Korea completed the Sihwa Lake Tidal Power Station, the world’s largest tidal array, roughly four decades after the project was first proposed. 

But 2019 signaled a new shift, when the tidal power startup SIMEC Atlantis Energy generated enough electricity from a project off the northern coast of Scotland to power more than 2,200 homes. Unlike the projects in France and South Korea, which are part of a singular, dam-like structure that mimics the design of traditional hydroelectric plants, the Scottish project was designed as an array of underwater turbines, somewhat resembling a wind farm. 

That July, SIMEC Atlantis broke a record for what the company identified as “the longest period of uninterrupted generation from a multi-megawatt tidal turbine array ever achieved.” Last August, the company told the Securities and Exchange Commission that it was exporting more than 30 gigawatt hours of electricity to the grid.

But in that same filing, the firm reported a 47% increase in annual losses.

Costs remain high, and that looks unlikely to change until the tidal industry settles on a preferred equipment design. Arrays of rotors like those off Scotland or in the East River seem promising, and mimic the look and feel of windmills. But the size and shape of turbines, and how and whether to anchor them to the seafloor or float them on vessels, remain open questions. 

The sun rises behind Sihwa Lake Pylon VD702. The Sihwa Lake Tidal Power Station in South Korea is the world's largest tidal a



The sun rises behind Sihwa Lake Pylon VD702. The Sihwa Lake Tidal Power Station in South Korea is the world’s largest tidal array.

Government Support Rolls Out, Government Support Rolls In

The flow of that money has been far less predictable than the tides themselves. 

The United Kingdom, which has jagged coasts that offer a multitude of potential tidal resources, emerged as an early benefactor for tidal startups, offering generous payments for tidal energy fed onto the grid. But, in a show of how sensitive the industry is to small policy changes, the British government ultimately tweaked the rules to put tidal energy under the same category as offshore wind, a far more mature industry with an ironclad global supply chain and major corporate players already making money off turbines dotting the seas across Europe and Asia. Tidal energy couldn’t compete, the British Institution of Mechanical Engineers concluded last year. 

“The U.K. experience demonstrates the impact of public policy,” said Alisdair McLean, executive director of the Offshore Energy Research Association. “Combining tidal energy and offshore wind almost killed the tidal energy industry in Scotland.” 

The model for government support, he said, is in his native Nova Scotia. In 2009, the rural province on Canada’s eastern coast opened the Fundy Ocean Research Centre for Energy on the Bay of Fundy, considered one of the most promising tidal energy resources in the world. The facility includes five underwater berths with four subsea cables running from the bay to a substation that processes the power generated at tidal sites. The province then agreed to pay a high premium of more than $400 per megawatt-hour of electricity produced, and the Canadian government made direct investments in the companies that set up shop there. 

The U.S. has set up steep hurdles for companies hoping to operate here. Verdant submitted four telephone books’ worth of studies to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and ultimately required 23 permits from 14 different agencies to begin operating in the East River. Financial support, by contrast, has been more scattershot, coming from a handful of federal agencies, including the departments of Defense and Energy, and municipalities such as New York City. It hasn’t been enough. 

“We need subsidies to make us competitive with other alternative renewable sources,” Banigan said. 

Above: A time-lapse video shows the tides rolling in and out of Canada’s Bay of Fundy, considered one of the most promising tidal resources in the world.

The Biden administration has signaled its plans to increase federal research and support for clean energy technologies. But it’s unclear where marine energy might fall on that list of priorities. 

Even more uncertain is the price batteries would need to reach to wipe out any demand for a costly but predictable new generating method. Batteries cost $1,100 per kilowatt-hour in 2010, and fell 87% to $156 in 2019, according to BloombergNEF data released last year. By 2023, the consultancy forecast the average price to hit about $100 per kilowatt-hour. Investment in the metals needed to make batteries, including cobalt and nickel, lag far behind growing battery demand, estimates from the energy research firm Wood Mackenzie indicate, suggesting there could be a bottleneck in the supply chain. But if battery prices continue to fall before tidal companies can garner enough public support and build an efficient supply chain, it could smother the industry. 

“The benefit of predictable energy from tidal power becomes less powerful if solar-plus-battery or wind-plus-battery can provide the same predictability at a lower price,” McLean said. “That’s the challenge tidal energy faces: It’s got to get its costs down fast enough that it can continue to generate interest from policymakers.” 

The marine energy sector might draw more interest once technology to convert waves into power becomes viable. Unlike tidal resources, which are mainly concentrated in the Northern Hemisphere or near small islands, waves could be harvested on virtually any ocean coasts. 

“It’s promising because wave energy opportunity is even larger than the tidal opportunity by roughly an order of magnitude, especially on the U.S. West Coast,” said Levi Kilcher, the head of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s ocean energy resource research. “It’s really a large ocean and a lot of energy there, from the West Coast to the Alaskan Coast.” 

But in the last few years alone, roughly 90 designs for wave technology have been tested, from buoys that sit atop oceans to devices that sit on the seafloor and produce power as waves squish an attached bag. 

“The technology is lagging behind tidal,” said Andrea Copping, a researcher at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “It’s very hard to do, so it’s just not as advanced.” 

By the end of next year, Verdant plans to remove the test turbines in the East River and begin work on commercial models twice the size of those rotors. Banigan said the company would like to set up a manufacturing site somewhere in New York, possibly in the city, where advocates are pushing to repurpose industrial waterfront property in Brooklyn and the Bronx for clean energy manufacturing, or upstate, which would put Verdant closer to the Canadian market. But the first commercial projects the company has in the pipeline will be in northwest Wales, Banigan said. 

However, Copping said the future of the industry looks brightest in East Asia. 

“Between the Philippines and Indonesia, there are probably thousands and thousands of good sites and demand nearby if you run a cable from a tidal generator half a kilometer to shore,” she said. “Meanwhile Singapore is trying to set themselves up to be the supplier for all this technology in Asia. They really believe in it.” 

Banigan agrees. Northern Europe, he said, is Verdant’s first stop. But in the mid 2020s, he expects the market in East Asia to bloom. By 2050, he predicted the tidal industry could generate $70 billion a year. 

“We’re at something of a tipping point,” said Banigan, a former investment banker who joined the company after meeting a founder at a business event in Shanghai in 2011. “We see tremendous opportunity ahead.”

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Science

The Scientist’s 2020 Gift Guide

Comfort for conservation

Socks for Animals was started by wildlife biologist Wes Larson as a way to educate the public about threatened species such as the pangolin, red panda, and narwhal. A portion of each sale is donated to a charity or scientist working with the species featured on your sock. Recipient Debahutee Roy Kar, for example, is a biologist at the Indian nonprofit Nature’s Foster who studies how habitat fragmentation affects the endangered golden langur monkey. Socks start at $10.

A gift for the mind

Why not pick out a new book for your loved one to enjoy with their new socks? All We Can Save features poetry and essays by women working towards uplifting solutions to climate change. If someone on your list got really into birding in 2020, try The Bird Way by science writer Jennifer Ackerman. For a compelling story about one naturalist’s journey to organize the world, there’s Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller, the cofounder of the NPR podcast Invisibilia. The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) by astrophysicist Katie Mack will certainly inspire some dinner table conversation, as will Explaining People, written by neurodivergent biochemist Camilla Pang. Lastly, if the science enthusiast you’re buying for wasn’t able to join The Scientist’s social club for our reading of Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, we certainly enjoyed it.

Origami microscope

The Foldscope emerged from a brainstorming session between two Stanford University scientists asking the question, “What is the best microscope you can build for under $1?” The answer, they discovered, was there in the paper they used to sketch their prototype. Foldscopes are a great way to engage with nature, and the company continues to send them throughout the world as a way of making science more accessible. You can purchase one for the microscopist on your list for $29.99 or donate directly in their honor to help send Foldscopes to classrooms worldwide.

COVID-19 plushy

Whether you want to cuddle it, burn it, or gift it, Giant Microbes has you covered with this COVID-19 plushy. Five percent of your purchase will go to one of three charities: Combating COVID-19 Fund, No Kid Hungry, or the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. Small plushies start at $14.95, but you can also buy a giant version for $39.95 or a “Class of 2020” plushy to celebrate those who graduated in such turbulent times for $18.95.

Genetic jewelry

Boutique Academia specializes in science-themed jewelry, including this set of friendship necklaces ($29.99), perfect for that pal you haven’t seen since the pandemic began. The virus and the antibody even bind! They also have accessories for those who love physics, microbiology, chemistry, and astronomy, among others. We’re fans of this tardigrade necklace, the neuron earrings, and the Avogadro’s number tie bar, each $24.99.

Support STEM

It feels especially important this year to support science. While we always suggest doing your own research on the activities and finances of charities before donating, we’ve included a few ideas here. 

For COVID-19 charities, consider donating to Get Us PPE, which provides personal protective equipment to frontline workers and under-resourced communities, the CDC Foundation, the WHO’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, or to EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that works to protect wildlife and the public from the emergence of disease.

The Scientist has featured several researchers this year involved in charitable initiatives. The Ora Lee Smith Cancer Research Foundation, founded by Scientist to Watch Hadiyah-Nicole Green, seeks to make cancer treatments affordable, accessible, and more effective. After the pandemic erased many summer research opportunities for Black, indigenous, and other undergraduates of color, Michael Johnson, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, started the National Summer Undergraduate Research Project as a way to facilitate remote mentorship. For a teaser of what you can look forward to in the January issue of the magazine, consider donating to conservation biologist Celine Frere’s group Detection Dogs for Conservation. Her specially trained dogs track and rescue rare animals, detect pests, and locate threatened native plants.

Lastly, consider donating to local science and natural history museums in your city that may be struggling due to the pandemic. 

CREDIT FOR OPENING IMAGE: © ISTOCK.COM, ALEXRATHS

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Science

Unexpected Similarity Discovered Between Honey Bee and Human Social Life

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Barcode Bees

An image obtained from the system showing barcoded bees inside the observation hive. Outlines reflect whether a barcode could be decoded successfully (green), could not be decoded (red), or was not detected (no outline). The hive entrance is in the lower-right corner, and the inset reveals two bees that were automatically detected performing trophallaxis. Credit: Tim Gernat, University of Illinois

Bees and humans are about as different organisms as one can imagine. Yet despite their many differences, surprising similarities in the ways that they interact socially have begun to be recognized in the last few years. Now, a team of researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, building on their earlier studies, have experimentally measured the social networks of honey bees and how they develop over time. They discovered that there are detailed similarities with the social networks of humans and that these similarities are completely explained by new theoretical modeling, which adapts the tools of statistical physics for biology. The theory, confirmed in experiments, implies that there are individual differences between honey bees, just as there are between humans.

The study, which measures the extent of individual differences in honey bee networking for the first time, was carried out by first author physics PhD student Sang Hyun Choi, postdocs Vikyath D. Rao, Adam R. Hamilton and Tim Gernat, Swanlund Chair of Physics Nigel Goldenfeld (BCXT leader/GNDP) and Swanlund Chair of Entomology and IGB Director Gene E. Robinson (GNDP). The collaboration comprised experimental measurements of honey bee social behavior performed by Hamilton, Gernat and Robinson, with data analysis by Rao and theoretical modeling and interpretation by Choi and Goldenfeld. Their findings were published in a recent article in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.  

“Originally, we wanted to use honey bees as a convenient social insect to help us find ways to measure and think about complex societies,” said Goldenfeld. “A few years ago, Gene, Tim, Vikyath and I collaborated on a large project that put “bar codes” on bees so that we could automatically monitor everywhere they went in the hive, every direction in which they pointed, and every interaction partner. In this way, we could build a social network in time, something known as a temporal network.”

That study, done a few years ago, involved high-resolution imaging of barcode-fitted honey bees, with algorithms detecting interaction events by mapping the position and orientation of the bees in the images. In those studies, researchers focused on trophallaxis — the act of mouth-to-mouth liquid food transfer — when measuring the social interactions between honey bees. Trophallaxis is used not only for feeding but for communication, making it a model system for studying social interactions.

“We chose to look at trophallaxis because it is the type of honey bee social interaction that we can accurately track,” said Choi. “Since honey bees are physically connected to each other by proboscis contact during trophallaxis, we can tell whether they are actually engaging in an interaction or not. In addition, each honey bee is tagged so we can identify each individual engaged in each interaction event.”

“In our earlier work, we asked how long bees spend between events where they meet other bees, and we showed that they interact in a non-uniform way,” said Goldenfeld. “Sang Hyun and I took the same data set, but now asked a different question:  What about the duration of interaction events, not the time between interactions?”

In looking at the individual interactions, the time spent varied from short interactions to long interactions. Based on these observations, Choi developed a theory where bees exhibited an individual trait of attractiveness that could be likened to human interaction. For example, humans might prefer to interact with friends or family members rather than strangers.

“We developed a theory for this based on a very simple idea: if a bee is interacting with another bee, you can think of that as a sort of “virtual spring” between them,” said Goldenfeld. “The strength of the spring is a measure of how attracted they are to each other so if the spring is weak, then the bees will quickly break the spring and go away, perhaps to find another bee with whom to interact. If the spring is strong, they may stay interacting longer. We call this theoretical description a minimal model, because it can quantitatively capture the phenomenon of interest without requiring excessive and unnecessary microscopic realism. Non-physicists are often surprised to learn that detailed understanding and predictions can be made with a minimum amount of descriptive input.”

Goldenfeld explained that the mathematical framework for their theory originated from a branch of physics called statistical mechanics, originally developed to describe gas atoms in a container, and since extended to encompass all states of matter, including living systems. Choi and Goldenfeld’s theory made correct predictions about the experimental honey bee dataset that was previously collected.

Out of curiosity, the theory was then applied to human datasets, revealing similar patterns as with the honey bee dataset. Choi and Goldenfeld then applied an economic measure for wealth and income disparities in humans — termed the Gini coefficient — to show that bees displayed disparities in attractiveness in their social interactions, although not as different as humans. These results indicate a surprising universality of the patterns of social interactions in both honey bees and humans.

“It is obvious that human individuals are different, but it is not so obvious for honey bees,” said Choi. “Therefore, we examined the inequality in the activity level of the honey bees in a way that is independent of our theory to verify that honey bee workers are indeed different. Previous work done in our group has used the Gini coefficient to quantify the inequality in honey bee foraging activity so we thought that this method would also work to examine the inequality in trophallaxis activity.”

“Finding such striking similarities between bees and humans spark interest in discovering universal principles of biology, and the mechanisms that underlie them,” said Robinson.

The researchers’ findings suggest that complex societies may have surprisingly simple and universal regularities, which can potentially shed light on the way that resilient and robust communities emerge from very different social roles and interactions. The researchers predict that their minimal theory could be applied to other eusocial insects since the theory does not involve honey bee-specific features.

In future studies, the same techniques from statistical mechanics can be applied to understand the cohesiveness of communities through well-characterized pair interactions, said Choi and Goldenfeld.

“This was my first project after I joined Nigel’s group, and it took a long time for me to figure out the right way to approach the problem,” said Choi. “It was fun and challenging to work on such an interdisciplinary project. As a physics student studying biological systems, I had never expected myself to use concepts from economics.”

“It was very exciting to see how simple physical ideas could explain such a seemingly complex and widespread social phenomenon, and also give some organismal insights,” said Goldenfeld. “I was very proud of Sang Hyun for having the persistence and insights to figure this out. Like all transdisciplinary science, this was a really tough problem to solve, but incredibly fascinating when it all came together. This is the sort of advance that arises from the co-location of different scientists within the same laboratory — in this case the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology.”

Reference: “Individual variations lead to universal and cross-species patterns of social behavior” by Sang Hyun Choi, Vikyath D. Rao, Tim Gernat, Adam R. Hamilton, Gene E. Robinson and Nigel Goldenfeld, 30 November 2020, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2002013117