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World's most ambitious tidal power project underway in Scotland

Scotland uses power of tides to help the earth 04:09

A lot of the talk at the Paris climate conference is on the need to develop new, clean energy technologies. What we have now -- wind and solar power -- are not enough.

But there's a new kind of power that's about to come on stream that may be part of the answer, reports CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips.

In the north coast of Scotland, the world's most ambitious tidal power project is well underway. Engineers are working to tap the immense energy potential of the oceans, and a network of cables have already been laid on the sea floor.

Soon, the first underwater turbines will be lowered into position, where the massive tidal forces will turn their rotors to make electricity.

The tidal currents on this bit of coast called the Pentland Firth are ferocious. The Atlantic tide rushes through the channel as it forces its way to the North Sea. And then, when the tide turns, it rushes back again.

The plan is for a full field of turbines to be installed on the sea bed here, where they will produce as much power as a conventional shore-side coal, gas or nuclear fired plant.

"It's a wonder people haven't looked at this site and other sites like it before," said David Taaffe, the site project manager.

The tidal plant -- its backers say -- will not suffer from the pitfalls of other renewable sources. Solar power only works when the sun shines, so not at night. And wind farms only work when the wind blows.

"Tidal has one very distinct benefit. It's virtually 100 percent predictable," said Tim Cornelius, CEO of Atlantis, the company building the new tidal plant.

Cornelius said another advantage is that it is "very environmentally benign." Unlike windfarms, which are criticized for spoiling the view on land or for being hazards to shipping at sea, "you don't see it and you don't hear it," Cornelius said.

That there's been power in the ocean has always been known. The tidal currents move back and forth here like clockwork. But the trick has been to develop technology as reliable as the tides. The developers say that is where we are now.

The technology, however, is expensive -- about twice the cost of wind generated power. But backers say the costs will come down quickly because tidal is adapting technology already used in the wind and the offshore oil industries.

"The best sites around the world are yet to be developed, and so we'll have a real boom over the next 10 to 15 years of sites around the world being developed," said Cornelius.

Among the North American sites being looked at is The Bay of Fundy off Nova Scotia -- where the world's strongest tides run -- and San Francisco Bay and its famous tidal race under the Golden Gate Bridge.

Both are untapped and waiting. With wind and solar power near their saturation point, tidal is being billed as the next big thing in clean, renewable power.

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