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About Tidal Power

How it works

Tidal-power is the power achieved by capturing the energy contained in moving water mass due to tides. Two types of tidal energy can be extracted: kinetic energy of currents between ebbing and surging tides and potential energy from the difference in height (or head) between high and low tides. The former method - generating energy from tidal currents - is considered much more feasible today than building ocean-based dams or barrages, and many coastal sites worldwide are being examined for their suitability to produce tidal (current) energy.
Tidal power is classified as a renewable energy source, because tides are caused by the orbital mechanics of the solar system and are considered inexhaustible within a human timeframe. The root source of the energy comes from the slow deceleration of the Earth's rotation. The Moon gains energy from this interaction and is slowly receding from the Earth. Tidal power has great potential for future power and electricity generation because of the total amount of energy contained in this rotation. Tidal power is reliably predictable (unlike wind energy and solar power). In Europe, Tide Mills have been used for nearly 1,000 years, mainly for grinding grains.

The efficiency of tidal power generation in ocean dams largely depends on the amplitude of the tidal swell, which can be up to 10 m (33 ft) where the periodic tidal waves funnel into rivers and fjords. Amplitudes of up to 17 m (56 ft) occur for example in the Bay of Fundy, where tidal resonance amplifies the tidal waves.

As with wind power, selection of location is critical for a tidal power generator. The potential energy contained in a volume of water is

E = x**

where x is the height of the tide, M is the mass of water and g is the acceleration due to gravity at the Earth's surface. Therefore, a tidal energy generator must be placed in a location with very high-amplitude tides. Suitable locations are found in the former USSR, USA, Canada, Australia, Korea, the UK and other countries (see below).

Several smaller tidal power plants have recently started generating electricity in Norway. They all exploit the strong periodic tidal currents in narrow fjords using sub-surface water turbines.


One method of extracting tidal energy involves building a barrage and creating a tidal lagoon. The barrage traps a water level inside a basin. Head is created when the water level outside of the basin or lagoon changes relative to the water level inside. The head is used to drive turbines. In any design this leads to a decrease of tidal range inside the basin or lagoon, implying a reduced transfer of water between the basin and the sea. This reduced transfer of water accounts for the energy produced by the scheme. The largest such installation has been working on the Rance river (France) since 1967 with an installed (peak) power of 240 MW, and an annual production of 600 million kWh (about 68 MW average power). this would provide a very useful power source to countries with a high budget on ecological matters
The basic elements of a barrage are caissons, embankments, sluices, turbines and ship locks. Sluices, turbines and ship locks are housed in caisson (very large concrete blocks). Embankments seal a basin where it is not sealed by caissons.

The sluice gates applicable to tidal power are the flap gate, vertical rising gate, radial gate and rising sector.

Modes of operation

Ebb generation
The basin is filled through the sluices and freewheeling turbines until high tide. Then the sluice gates and turbine gates are closed. They are kept closed until the sea level falls to create sufficient head across the barrage and the turbines generate until the head is again low. Then the sluices are opened, turbines disconnected and the basin is filled again. The cycle repeats itself. Ebb generation (also known as outflow generation) takes its name because generation occurs as the tide ebbs.

Flood generation

The basin is filled through the sluices and turbines generate at tide flood. This is generally much less efficient than ebb generation, because the volume contained in the upper half of the basin (which is where ebb generation operates) is greater than the volume of the lower half (the domain of flood generation). This is compounded by the fact that there is usually a river flowing into the basin, filling the basin as the tide rises and making the difference in levels between the basin side and the sea side of the barrage (and therefore the available potential energy) less than it would otherwise be. This is not a problem with the lagoon model: the reason being that there is no current from a river to slow the flooding current from the sea. says George.


Turbines are able to be powered in reverse by excess energy in the grid to increase the water level in the basin at high tide (for ebb generation and two-way generation). This energy is returned during generation.

Two-basin schemes

With two basins, one is filled at high tide and the other is emptied at low tide. Turbines are placed between the basins. Two-basin schemes offer advantages over normal schemes in that generation time can be adjusted with high flexibility and it is also possible to generate almost continuously. In normal estuarine situations, however, two-basin schemes are very expensive to construct due to the cost of the extra length of barrage. There are some favourable geographies, however, which are well suited to this type of scheme.

Tidal turbines

A new scheme plans to use turbines similar to those found in wind farms to generate electricity via large current areas such as Cook Strait in New Zealand. There are two operational devices known worldwide, one developed by Hammerfest Strom in Norway, the other by Marine Current Turbines in the Severn Estuary, UK. Other device developers include Swanturbines, Lunar Energy and Open Hydro.

Environmental impact

Tidal Energy Efficiency
Tidal energy has an efficiency of 80% in converting the potential energy of the water into electricity, which is efficient compared to other energy resources such as solar power.

Local environmental impact

The placement of a barrage into an estuary has a considerable effect on the water inside the basin and on the fish. A tidal current turbine will have a much lower impact.


Turbidity (the amount of matter in suspension in the water) decreases as a result of smaller volume of water being exchanged between the basin and the sea. This lets light from the Sun to penetrate the water further, improving conditions for the phytoplankton. The changes propagate up the food chain, causing a general change in the ecosystem.


Again as a result of less water exchange with the sea, the average salinity inside the basin decreases, also affecting the ecosystem. Again, lagoons do not suffer from this problem.

Sediment movements

Estuaries often have high volume of sediments moving through them, from the rivers to the sea. The introduction of a barrage into an estuary may result in sediment accumulation within the barrage, affecting the ecosystem and also the operation of the barrage.

With turbine generation, taking its power from the flow of the tidal stream, there will likely be a swirl of water down stream of the turbine. If this horizontal vortex touches the bottom, it will cause erosion. While the amount of sediment added to the tidal stream will likely be insignificant, this could, over time, erode the foundation of the turbine. Turbines held down with pilings would be largely immune to this problem but turbines held by heavy weights sitting on the bottom could eventually tip over.


Again, as a result of reduced volume, the pollutants accumulating in the basin will be less efficiently dispersed. Their concentrations will increase. For biodegradable pollutants, such as sewage, an increase in concentration is likely to lead to increased bacteria growth in the basin, having impacts on the health of the human community and the ecosystem.

The concentrations of conservative pollutants will also increase.


Fish may move through sluices safely, but when these are closed, fish will seek out turbines and attempt to swim through them. Also, some fish will be unable to escape the water speed near a turbine and will be sucked through. Even with the most fish-friendly turbine design, fish mortality per pass is approximately 15% (from pressure drop, contact with blades, cavitation, etc.). This can be acceptable for a spawning run, but is devastating for local fish who pass in and out of the basin on a daily basis. Alternative passage technologies (fish ladders, fish lifts, etc.) have so far failed to solve this problem for tidal barrages, either offering extremely expensive solutions, or ones which are used by a small fraction of fish only. Research in sonic guidance of fish is ongoing.

Global environmental impact

A tidal power scheme is a long-term source of electricity. A proposal for the Severn Barrage, if built, has been projected to save 18 million tons of coal per year of operation. This decreases the output of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. More importantly, as the fossil fuel resource is likely to be eliminated by the end of the twenty-first century, tidal power is one of the alternative source of energy that will need to be developed to satisfy the human demand for energy.