- There are many drivers for the pursuit of renewable energy extraction from coastal seas. In the United Kingdom these include moving away from fossil fuels to mitigate the impacts of climate change, improving energy security by diversifying supply options, increasing wealth generation in outlying coastal communities, and seeking alternative sources of power as existing infrastructure (power stations) near the end of their useful lives. In Scotland these drivers are particularly strong because of the additional factors of decline of North Sea oil reserves; the political pressure not to re-develop nuclear power plants; and the abundant offshore wind, wave and tidal-stream resources.
While these drivers are strong, and backed up by ambitious political targets, a variety of constraints currently limit development of a vibrant marine renewables sector in UK coastal waters. In addition to financial, technological and logistical issues, a diversity of environmental restrictions limitprogress of the renewables sector. Many of these environmental issues actually stem from a lack of basic knowledge of how marine renewable energy devices are likely to interact with the receiving environment and vulnerable species (particularly those protected by European legislation such as the Habitats and Species as well as the Birds Directives). Furthermore where negative interactions are known, there may be limited knowledge about, or options for, mitigating these impacts. Strictly applying precautionary principals to these new and diverse technologies with respect to their potential local negative environmental impacts threatens to halt development of these technologies despite their potential benefits for global climate and other environmental issues. This problem applies particularly to wave and tidal-stream technologies which are diverse, new, and without track-record. To overcome this issue, the Scottish government is implementing a staged introduction of these technologies under what has been termed a “Survey-Deploy-&-Monitor” policy. That is, commercial scale devices are being placed singly or in small arrays (< 10 MW) into areas of pre-determined and acceptable environmental sensitivity and then impacts are being quantified through a monitoring program. In parallel to this approach, The Crown Estate (the seabed owner) has performed a series of licensing rounds to lease preferred sites to specific wind, wave and tidal-stream developers. If consented, these sites will represent commercial-scale developments of all three technologies in Scottish and wider UK waters. Part of that consenting progress requires that developers provide evidence (through Environmental Impact Studies and the production of Environmental Statements) that their developments will not harm the surrounding environment.
It is these consenting exercises and related fundamental questions about impacts that are currently driving most of the environmental research related to offshore wind and marine renewable technologies in the UK. Research tends to fall into three divisions based on the source of funding and the geographic scope of the issues. At the smallest scale are studies of individual sites of interest to individual developers seeking consents for a specific technology. More generic studies funded by government or industry consortia may be performed to understand environmental issues surrounding a particular group of technologies, installation methods, or operational parameters. In this case, the actual site may be less important. Finally, fundamental research (funded by Research Councils) may be carried out to understand how and why animals use renewable energy relevant sites.
Because there are a large number of research studies currently underway at a wide range of scales, sites, and taxa in Scotland and the wider UK, it is not possible to summarize them all in this short talk. Instead, I will outline examples of the three broad areas of environmental research (site/device specific, technology generic and more basic ecology). These examples have also been chosen because they represent an ongoing project, a recently established group of research studies, and a potential new research program.
Some of the perhaps less intuitive lessons that have arisen from some of such projects include :
1. The responses of organisms may not be tied to particular brands of device or energy extraction, whether wind, wave, tidal-stream or even oil platform. For fouling organisms the particulars of the substrate might be the important factor rather than the device’s method of energy extraction. Likewise for fish it may be the device complexity and position in the water column that is key to their interactions.
2. Conversely, particular, seemingly unimportant features of devices may have relevance to marine organisms. For example, the color of a turbine may be extremely important for animals maneuvering around the rotors, a duct or the pile.
3. Test centers used to assess full-scale devices may seem like excellent places to also perform environmental research; however care must be taken as the devices in test centers are typically early generation prototypes and may be swapped out frequently. Furthermore activities by other companies at neighboring berths may invalidate site or device specific experiments.
4. Inter-annual variability does not suit the current pace of marine renewables development and careful consideration of the use of control sites and BACI designs should be made.
5. Cumulative impacts of multiple renewable and other developments offer a massive challenge to determining environmental impact. This difficulty represents a significant area of uncertainty for developers seeking consent and may encourage a development race with companies not wanting to have to consider their development relative to all of the others that preceded them.
6. Finally, while much effort is currently being devoted to gathering sufficient data to permit consent and early stage deployments, the significant investments only come when developers set up arrays capable of producing commercially relevant power. At this point there may be a step change in the degree of monitoring required of any potential environmental interactions. Should intolerable impacts be found, then mitigation will be urgently required or an exit strategy implemented.
- Wilson, B. 2012. A UK perspective on marine renewable energy environmental research: Keeping up with a ‘Deploy & Monitor’ philosophy. In: Boehlert, G., C. Braby, A. S. Bull, M. E. Helix, S. Henkel, P. Klarin, and D. Schroeder, eds. 2013. Oregon Marine Renewable Energy Environmental Science Conference Proceedings. U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Cooperative Agreement with Oregon State University M12AC00012. OCS Report BOEM 2013-0113. 149 pp.