International Standards Are More Important (and Interesting) Than Most People Think

Newly Published Marine Energy Standards Mark the Industry’s Coming of Age

June 14, 2022 | By Caitlin McDermott-Murphy | Contact media relations

Two people stand next to a device on a tripod with an antenna on a cliff next to a boat-filled harbor
Raise your standards. International electrical standards make sure everything from toasters to medical equipment are safe, work across countries, and perform as promised. Now, a new plan to write the next generation of marine energy standards could help this budding electrical industry achieve commercial success. Photo by Christopher Pike, NREL

Imagine you arrive in your Paris hotel room and crave a real French croissant. You look for an outlet to charge your phone so you can search for the nearest bakery, but wait—that socket looks a little odd. What is going on?

“That’s the best example of where standards have really failed,” said Jonathan Colby, the chair of the International Electrotechnical Commission’s committee on marine energy standards, called Technical Committee 114 (or TC 114 for short). “Now, it's way too late,” he continued. “Who's going to change all the electrical outlets globally? For the rest of our lives, we're stuck with power adapters when we travel. Guaranteed.”

That irreversible jumble is what Colby and TC 114 aim to avoid for a different kind of electrical conduit—nascent marine energy technologies, which could soon generate renewable energy from ocean and river currents, waves, tides, or even shifts in salinity or water temperature. Now, after 15 years of work, TC 114 just released a new strategic business plan, which Colby called their “best ever,” in part because of strong global input and deeper understanding of what the marine energy industry needs. The International Electrotechnical Commission is excited too, saying the plan marks “the marine energy sector's coming of age.”

“We all trust that a 60-watt light bulb is 60 watts,” Colby said. “If someone says this is a one-megawatt tidal converter, we want a common understanding of what that means. A lot of people say, sarcastically, ‘Oh, great. Standards.’ But nearly everything you touch every day has had a standard applied to it.”

Electrical devices, like refrigerators, toasters, and televisions, all receive a stamp of certification—most displayed as actual stamps—to confirm the technology is safe and performs as promised. And certification bodies rely on standards—a reliable set of global guidelines—to gauge whether to approve a technology (or not). That is why an international set of marine energy standards is such a key part of the industry’s success; standards lead to certification, which builds trust. And trust builds investor confidence.

“Who wants to invest in something that's super, super high risk?” Colby said. “It's no coincidence that when the wind energy sector adopted and implemented a solid set of standards, and the associated certificates, the growth of the wind energy industry was exponential.”

TC 114 was once a small group discussing theoretical challenges; now, the committee welcomes input from nearly 200 experts across 29 countries, who share expertise on what is working—or is not working—as marine energy devices enter the water for the first time.

Take, for example, biofouling—the accumulation of sea life, including microorganisms, plants, and even animals, like sea sponges and mussels—on equipment submerged in oceans or rivers. Only now, after marine energy companies have deployed and left their devices out in the brine have they understood that biofouling is a significant challenge. After TC 114 reported this potential hurdle in their strategic business plan, members quickly volunteered to write a biofouling quantification standard—essentially, a guide for future technology developers to help them address this challenge and march on toward commercial success. TC 114’s previously published standards already offer best practices for device safety, reliability, and productivity, all of which can help marine energy get to market faster. 

“That, essentially, is the pathway to commercialization—for marine energy technologies to be taken seriously and get that stamp,” said Arielle Cardinal, a project manager for the water power program at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), which administers TC 114’s Technical Advisory Group. 

“It’s thanks to Arielle and NREL that we are so effective operationally,” Colby said. And thanks to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office that TC 114 exists and has progressed so far. “One of the reasons I'm chair is because of DOE support and because the United States is saying, ‘We want to be leaders in this.’”

That means leading the marine energy industry to commercial success, which could gift the world with far more than just a new source of clean, renewable energy. For the first time, TC 114’s latest strategic business plan ties marine energy to 10 of the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals. Billed as a blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, these goals are lofty—and marine energy’s success could directly influence five of the 17, including climate action, life below water, and responsible consumption and production, while indirectly impacting another five, like decent work and economic growth.

“Some of them are so obvious,” Colby said. “It’s clear we are working on affordable and clean energy. The whole point of our industry is to provide a sustainable and environmentally friendly energy source and build clean, more diverse, and just communities.” But also, Colby said, if marine energy could power irrigation for on-land farms or fishers and fish farmers, who feed nearly 3 billion people worldwide, the industry could play a part in fighting world hunger, too.

For now, TC 114 is still focusing on getting marine energy up and running around the world, which is enough of a challenge. That means standardizing measurements of, for example, how much power a device produces or how much energy churns through oceans, rivers, and streams and terminology, even across language barriers. It also means encouraging young companies to share best practices and other data and information so the entire community can learn from each other’s mistakes and breakthroughs. Plus, participation requires time and money, which means some countries do not have the means to contribute. 

“The strategic business plan and the TC 114 standards need to be consensus-based documents,” said NREL’s Cardinal. “Each standard is supposed to be developed by a working group with at least four different participating countries. Otherwise, if it's all just U.S. folks, that’s not a consensus-based standard.”

Colby hopes TC 114 will write three to five more standards—with at least one on biofouling—in the next couple of years (adding to the 17 written during the committee’s first 15 years). The committee also plans to incorporate more gender-neutral language into their materials to ensure they are inclusive.

“This strategic business plan is a nice current snapshot of where the marine energy industry is, where they want to be, and what they need to get there,” Cardinal said. With TC 114’s steady guidance, the industry can follow the blossoming wind energy industry—instead of the electrical socket chaos—to commercial success.


Subscribe to the NREL water power newsletter, The Current, to make sure you do not miss a marine energy update. And if you are just as enthusiastic about standards as Jonathan Colby, you can find all the latest marine energy standards in the recent Strategic Business Plan.

Tags: Water,Marine Energy