Prince of tides... minister praises Northern Ireland's role at forefront of harnessing the sea's power
Northern Ireland has been hailed as being at the forefront of developing energy generation from the tides.
The SeaGen tidal turbine in Strangford Lough in Portaferry, when combined with sites in the rest of the UK, has the potential to generate the same amount of power as a nuclear energy plant.
Designed and developed by Siemens-owned Marine Current Turbine, it generates electricity from two massive underwater propellers and has been installed since 2008.
Westminster Energy and Climate Change Minister, Greg Barker, yesterday visited the impressive turbine for the first time.
He said: "I'm really impressed with this world-class marine technology which is at the forefront of what we are doing here in the UK. This puts Northern Ireland at the cutting edge of the development of marine technology.
"Marine is important because the drive for clean energy and tidal energy in particular has huge potential for employment, not just around the British Isles, but also globally.
"There is huge potential. We reckon there is around two to three gigawatts of potential tidal energy around the shores of the United Kingdom – in context that is the equivalent of the output of a nuclear power station.
"So you have got to be patient and drive the commercialisation and scale up and the coalition government is absolutely up for that challenge," he added.
Recently Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK have been battered by gale force winds, but while the huge waves crashing on to coastal roads may have caused havoc for us – they can be turned into a positive in the tidal energy world.
Mr Barker said: "Today was pretty choppy out on the boat but it really gave a great flavour of the huge force of nature, the untapped energy there is in the elements around our coast and you really felt that.
"Although today the turbines were raised up for maintenance and we could see the technology more easily – you really do get a sense of the power that would surge through there on a daily basis as the tides come in and out."
Initially there were fears before the turbine was installed that it would be harmful to the local environment which is rich in wildlife such as seals and porpoises.
After complex data analysis, David Ainsworth, business director of Marine Current Turbines, said there had been no "significant change or adverse impacts" to the animals.
"We are still in the process where we have to do mitigation where basically if any seals come within 30 metres of the tidal turbine we have to shut the turbine down until the seals have gone away."
Soon they hope to have a period where they do not shut the turbine down any more.
Mr Barker told the Belfast Telegraph that Northern Ireland can be "very proud" that it is right at the forefront of the UK push for tidal energy.
He added: "The future is very bright – it's very early stages but we can now see the future emerging and be increasingly confident that this clean energy has a very successful future ahead of it."
SeaGen tidal turbine works much like an underwater windmill but with the rotors driven by the power of the tidal currents rather than the wind.
It was deployed in Northern Ireland's Strangford Lough in May 2008 and since then has undergone commissioning trials. It has the power to generate electricty for up to 1,500 homes.