Can Texas harness energy from the ocean?

by | May 3, 2021 | Energy, Policy

As the world looks for new ways of generating power to combat climate change, one energy source more people are looking toward is the ocean. The ocean is home to terawatts of clean, renewable energy, yet so far it is largely untapped. Texas could play a major role in unlocking this energy; in addition to over 360 miles of coastline it has a unique energy ecosystem that could foster breakthroughs in ocean energy. 

There are several ways to derive energy from the ocean. One is hydrokinetic, which generates power using tides, waves, and currents. The advantage is that this energy is far more consistent and predictable than other renewables; unlike wind and solar it can generate power 24/7 although the level does vary. Since the intermittency problem is a large part of why we’ve been unable to completely switch to renewables (absent major improvements in energy storage), this is a pretty big advantage. There’s also a lot of hydrokinetic energy out there. It’s estimated that up to 80,000 terawatt hours per year could be generated just from waves. To put that in perspective, the entire world’s electricity consumption amounted to less than 24,000 terawatt hours in 2018. 

Offshore wind is also an abundant source of renewable energy, although it’s often categorized separately since the energy comes from wind rather than directly from the energy. Winds are stronger and more consistent at sea than on land. The United States has been called the Saudi Arabia of offshore wind and Texas, which already leads the nation in wind power, has huge untapped potential. According to one report, offshore wind could provide 166 percent of Texas’ electricity needs. 

Unfortunately, ocean energy comes with major challenges as well. Offshore platforms come with higher up front costs. They are maintenance intensive due to salt water corrosion as well as marine life like barnacles. This raises costs and makes it difficult for ocean energy sources to be economically competitive with those on land. There are also concerns regarding the effect on marine life, which are still not entirely clear. NIMBY-ism can prevent ocean energy from being developed alongside scenic seaside real estate; the late Senator Ted Kennedy opposed an offshore wind project that would have been near his Nantucket Sound house. For Texas, the frequency of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico is a major issue. 

But if anyone can figure out how to unlock the potential energy of the ocean, it’s Texas.

Texas has considerable know-how when it comes to developing energy sources at sea thanks to its experience with offshore oil rigs. For example, researchers from Texas A&M who have considerable experience with offshore oil are developing platforms that would combine wind and hydrokinetic energy. This could be another example of Texas’ fossil fuel ecosystem ironically providing solutions to the problem it helped create.   

Ocean energy may not be a panacea, but all options need to be on the table when it comes to the climate crisis. Reaching zero carbon emissions may ultimately require many different energy sources working in tandem, and perhaps energy from waves, currents and tides as well as offshore wind can be part of the cocktail mix of clean energy. The energy of the world’s oceans is largely untapped right now, but Texas has changed the energy paradigm before and perhaps it can do so again.

Photo: Government of Scotland / Wikimedia Commons

Editorial Assistant/Staff Writer | + posts

William serves as a staff writer and editorial assistant at the Texas Signal, where he edits and posts articles and writes on topics ranging from national security to Louie Gohmert's plan to alter the orbit of planets. William has worked on Democratic campaigns in Texas, Colorado, and North Carolina and is an internet meme expert.

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