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The moon and earth are in a whirling, pirouetting dance around the sun. Together they tour the sun once every year, at the same time whirling around each other once every 28 days. The moon also turns around once every 28 days so that she always shows the same face to her dancing partner, the earth. The prima donna earth doesn't return the compliment; she pirouettes once every day. This dance is held together by the force of gravity: every bit of the earth, moon, and sun is pulled towards every other bit of earth, moon, and sun. The sum of all these forces is almost exactly what's required to keep the whirling dance on course. But there are very slight imbalances between the gravitational forces and the forces required to maintain the dance. It is these imbalances that give rise to the tides.

The imbalances associated with the whirling of the moon and earth around each other are about three times as big as the imbalances associated with the earth's slower dance around the sun, so the size of the tides varies with the phase of the moon, as the moon and sun pass in and out of alignment. At full moon and new moon (when the moon and sun are in line with each other) the imbalances reinforce each other, and the resulting big tides are called spring tides. (Spring tides are not "tides that occur at spring-time;" spring tides happen every two weeks like clockwork.) At the intervening half moons, the imbalances partly cancel and the tides are smaller; these smaller tides are called neap tides. Spring tides have roughly twice the amplitude of neap tides: the spring high tides are twice as high above mean sea level as neap high tides, the spring low tides are twice as low as neap low tides, and the tidal currents are twice as big at springs as at neaps.

Why are there two high tides and two low tides per day? Well, if the earth were a perfect sphere, a smooth billiard ball covered by oceans, the tidal effect of the earth-moon whirling would be to deform the water slightly towards and away from the moon, making the water slightly rugby-ball shaped (figure 14.1). Someone living on the equator of this billiard-ball earth, spinning round once per day within the water cocoon, would notice the water level going up and down twice per day: up once as he passed under the nose of the rugby-ball, and up a second time as he passed under its tail. This cartoon explanation is some way from reality. In reality, the earth is not smooth, and it is not uniformly covered by water (as you may have noticed). Two humps of water cannot whoosh round the earth once per day because the continents get in the way. The true behaviour of the tides is thus more complicated. In a large body of water such as the Atlantic Ocean, tidal crests and troughs form but, unable to whoosh round the earth, they do the next best thing: they whoosh around the perimeter of the Ocean. In the North Atlantic there are two crests and two troughs, all circling the Atlantic in an anticlockwise direction once a away from towards the N the moon moon /

Figure 14.1. An ocean covering a billiard-ball earth. We're looking down on the North pole, and the moon is 60 cm off the page to the right. The earth spins once per day inside a rugby-ball-shaped shell of water. The oceans are stretched towards and away from the moon because the gravitational forces supplied by the moon don't perfectly match the required centripetal force to keep the earth and moon whirling around their common centre of gravity.

Someone standing on the equator (rotating as indicated by the arrow) will experience two high waters and two low waters per day.

day. Here in Britain we don't directly see these Atlantic crests and troughs - we are set back from the Atlantic proper, separated from it by a few hundred miles of paddling pool called the continental shelf. Each time one of the crests whooshes by in the Atlantic proper, it sends a crest up our paddling pool. Similarly each Atlantic trough sends a trough up the paddling pool. Consecutive crests and troughs are separated by six hours. Or to be more precise, by six and a quarter hours, since the time between moon-rises is about 25, not 24 hours.

The speed at which the crests and troughs travel varies with the depth of the paddling pool. The shallower the paddling pool gets, the slower the crests and troughs travel and the larger they get. Out in the ocean, the tides are just a foot or two in height. Arriving in European estuaries, the tidal range is often as big as four metres. In the northern hemisphere, the Coriolis force (a force, associated with the rotation of the earth, that acts only on moving objects) makes all tidal crests and troughs tend to hug the right-hand bank as they go. For example, the tides in the English channel are bigger on the French side. Similarly, the crests and troughs entering the North Sea around the Orkneys hug the British side, travelling down to the Thames Estuary then turning left at the Netherlands to pay their respects to Denmark.

Tidal energy is sometimes called lunar energy, since it's mainly thanks to the moon that the water sloshes around so. Much of the tidal energy, however, is really coming from the rotational energy of the spinning earth. The earth is very gradually slowing down.

So, how can we put tidal energy to use, and how much power could we extract?

Rough estimates of tidal power

When you think of tidal power, you might think of an artificial pool next to the sea, with a water-wheel that is turned as the pool fills or empties (figures 14.2 and 14.3). Chapter G shows how to estimate the power available from such tide-pools. Assuming a range of 4 m, a typical range in many European estuaries, the maximum power of an artificial tide-pool that's filled rapidly at high tide and emptied rapidly at low tide, generating power from both flow directions, is about 3 W/m2. This is the same as the power per unit area of an offshore wind farm. And we already know how big offshore wind farms need to be to make a difference. They need to be country-sized. So similarly, to make tide-pools capable of producing power comparable to Britain's total consumption, we'd need the total area of the tide-pools to be similar to the area of Britain.

Amazingly, Britain is already supplied with a natural tide-pool of just the required dimensions. This tide-pool is known as the North Sea (figure 14.5). If we simply insert generators in appropriate spots, significant power can be extracted. The generators might look like underwater wind-

Figure 14.2. Woodbridge tide-pool and tide-mill. Photos kindly provided by Ted Evans.

sea high water tidepool

Figure 14.3. An artificial tide-pool. The pool was filled at high tide, and now it's low tide. We let the water out through the electricity generator to turn the water's potential energy into electricity.

tidal power range density

Table 14.4. Power density (power per unit area) of tide-pools, assuming generation from both the rising and the falling tide.


mills. Because the density of water is roughly 1000 times that of air, the power of water flow is 1000 times greater than the power of wind at the same speed. We'll come back to tide farms in a moment, but first let's discuss how much raw tidal energy rolls around Britain every day.

Figure 14.5. The British Isles are in a fortunate position: the North Sea forms a natural tide-pool, in and out of which great sloshes of water pour twice a day.

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Renewable Energy 101

Renewable Energy 101

Renewable energy is energy that is generated from sunlight, rain, tides, geothermal heat and wind. These sources are naturally and constantly replenished, which is why they are deemed as renewable. The usage of renewable energy sources is very important when considering the sustainability of the existing energy usage of the world. While there is currently an abundance of non-renewable energy sources, such as nuclear fuels, these energy sources are depleting. In addition to being a non-renewable supply, the non-renewable energy sources release emissions into the air, which has an adverse effect on the environment.

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