$15-Million Marine Energy Prize Launched in Scotland

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He described the Pentland Firth, a region between Scotland's north coast and the Orkney Islands, as the "Saudi Arabia of renewable marine energy."

Scotland aims to meet 50 percent of its electricity demand from renewable resources by 2020.

(Learn how to support cleaner energy in the Green Guide.)

There's also huge potential for ocean energy globally, said prize committee member Terry Garcia, executive vice president for mission programs for the National Geographic Society. (National Geographic News is owned by the National Geographic Society.)

"It's not going to be the sole solution to our energy needs," Garcia said, but "this will be one of the important pieces of the puzzle."

The main purpose of the competition is to act as a catalyst for innovation, Garcia added.

"It's both about making marine energy economically viable and being able to produce it in a sustained way on a large scale," he said.

Wave and Tidal Power

The two major types of marine power are wave and tidal power.

Wave power technology involves floating modules with internal generators, which produce electricity as they twist about on the sea surface.

Tidal power harnesses tidal currents with arrays of underwater turbines similar to those that propel wind farms.

Tidal ranks among the most reliable renewable energies because tides are highly predictable, said AbuBakr Bahaj, head of the University of Southampton's Sustainable Energy Research Group in the U.K.

"But wave energy is driven by wind, which is notoriously difficult to predict," he said.

Even so, wave power may have the higher electricity-generating potential.

In Britain, for instance, it's estimated that wave power could potentially provide 20 percent of the country's total electricity supply, against 5 to 10 percent for tidal power, Bahaj said.

The scientist says the main technical challenge is to create reliable power installations that can operate in difficult marine environments for five to ten years without maintenance.

"You also need to have multiple devices working together at each site," he said.

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