Tidal Power: Pros and Cons

Day and night, the vast waters of the ocean press and recede along the shorelines of Earth’s every continent in accordance to the celestial movements of our planet in relation to the sun and the moon. This tidal movement is particularly pronounced in certain areas, like the Bay of Fundy, for example, where Spring tides can reach a height of 50 feet or more.

Innovators have long recognized the potential to capture great quantities of clean, free energy from these tides that can be used to spin turbines and readily produce electricity. Records of ocean power conversion date back to 900A.D. where the power of tidal movement was used to grind grains. The first modern commercial tidal power was installed off the coast of St. Malo, in Northern France. Installed in 1965, it has been operating continuously since then, producing 240 MW with every tide. This plant operates using a tidal barrage, which is a type of dam that closes off a basin with gates, captures the tidal flow, then releases it back through a turbine. This is still the most common type of tidal plant in use today, though there are two other types: the tidal fences and tidal turbines.

Tidal fences block a channel directing the tidal flow through turbines that are contained within the fence.

Tidal turbines are freestanding machines that can be thought of as underwater wind turbines, spinning as the tidal flow moves past them.

Because these are purely mechanical device, with no boiling fluids or heat transfer required, efficiencies are quite high, generally in the neighborhood of 80%. Unlike solar and wind, the power coming from these systems is quite predictable, though, like those other renewables, it is also not continuous. They only generate power during tidal surges which occur roughly 10 hours per day. The other issue is the ecologically sensitive areas where these turbines are often placed. Their impacts on biodiversity in fragile coastal ecosystems, while not always completely understood, can often be quite harmful. Let’s rack up the pluses and minuses.

Tidal Power Pros and Cons


  • Renewable. Requires no fuel.
  • Emission-free
  • Reliable, a plant can last 100 years
  • High efficiency
  • Predictable output
  • Could potentially provide a storm surge barrier.
  • Environmental impacts are local, not global


  • Expensive to build
  • Very location specific (only 20 sites identified with high potential)
  • Non-continuous, storage or grid-backup required
  • Locations are often remote
  • Barrages may restrict access to open water
  • Can change tidal level of surrounding area
  • Impact on fish, marine mammals and birds
  • Disrupts regular tidal cycles
  • Decreases salinity in tidal basins
  • Mud flats (where many birds feed) adversely impacted
  • Captures dirt, waste and pollution near the coast
  • Reduces kinetic energy in the ocean


As you can see, tidal power can be expected to play a small, yet not insignificant role in the overall renewable energy ensemble. It has been estimated that it could potentially produce 20% of Britain’s electricity. More research is required to understand how best to tap this resource with minimal environmental harm. Cost also remains a barrier at the moment, but that could change, either through product innovation, or through price increases in other sources. The baseline technology is basically the same as what was used in the 60’s which suggests that there are opportunities for innovation. Indeed, Rolls-Royce recently announced a 500 kW tidal stream plant, a type of tidal turbine that has become operational at a test facility, 40 meters deep off the cost of Scotland. Deployed last June it had already delivered 100MWh as of October.


What about other energy sources?

[Image credit: rickz: Flickr Creative Commons]


RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.

RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com

12 responses

  1. I think that while tidal power maybe better in some ways than burning fossil fuels, it ends up harming tidal species and habitats in the process. I know everything has pros and cons, but it seems a bit counterproductive if we’re going to do more harm to some ecosystems in the search for green energy alternatives. 

  2. Tidal seems like a winner all around. There is no way that it is going to harm habitats or species — any more than ship propellors do. Water is, what, ~880 denser than air and tidal currents are totally predictable. That being said, most systems only push power at water speeds > 2m/s and there aren’t a ton of places in the world where water speed exceeds that for long periods.

  3. The ecosystem disruption issue is stated 6 ways to sunday when in reality the effect is the same – minimal. We are not dumping chemical into the water or turning the system on its head. This is a lame arguement to attack a legitimate, renewable energy source. altering the basin contour is just throwing the dice as nature has done forever. Lifew will find a way – adapt. The fact that the technology has not changed since the 1960s is very disconcerting. The system can only produce power 10 hours a day? My profession has very little if anything to do with tidal energy production but, given volume of water involved and the force it can produce, I can figure out ways to produce power on both cycles and I am sure there are people who can figure out much more efficient systems than I can. This is all politics and very little science – that this is not a legitimate energy source.

Leave a Reply