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Tidal environmental impact monitoring: are strict requirements holding back industry growth?

As companies work towards refining their various tidal energy technologies, attention is increasing towards fully understanding potential environmental impacts.

Benj Sykes, Carbon Trust: Making findings public to help overall tidal industry

Tidal environmental impact monitoring: are strict requirements holding back industry growth?

Chris Williams

Tidal Today 31st August 2011
By Gail Rajgor

Environmental impact monitoring is “an important aspect to quantifying the risks of industry development [both] to the environment, and to project economics,” explains the UK’s Carbon Trust.

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), a key statutory conservation agency, agrees. “Few tidal stream generators have yet been developed, let alone monitored, so the detailed advice we can offer on their location or operation is limited.”

Key issues that need to be assessed, it explains, include navigational risk for devices which project to or near to the surface; effects on tidal flow patterns, downstream currents, sedimentation patterns and seabed morphology and their consequential impact on marine habitats; acoustic emissions and the effect on marine mammals and ecology; collision risk; and disturbance during construction to marine and intertidal habitats and species.

Development on hold?

While acknowledging environmental due diligence is vital, the industry is, however, concerned that some of the environmental monitoring requirements expected of it are perhaps too onerous and could hold back development.

Pre-construction environmental impact assessments (EIAs) and any related post-construction environmental monitoring requirements can “constrain [tidal energy] growth through the stringency of measures required and/or can financially constrain growth due to the extent of measures that developers may have to fund and implement”, notes Ove Arup in its recent Review of the generation costs and deployment potential of renewable electricity technologies in the UK (for the Department of Energy and Climate Change).

“The important thing is for different organizations to share information and learn as we go forward,” agrees Chris Williams, Development Director of Tidal Energy Ltd (TEL).

He stresses that no one is advocating the tidal industry be relieved of its environmental obligations. TEL and the industry as a whole have “always appreciated we need significant environmental surveys prior to installation and would need to have a significant monitoring package as well.”

But regulators, statutory consultees and companies need to work together to gain more knowledge “so we don’t have to repeat the various surveys and requirements as projects go forward,” he says.

Putting money to better use

“I don’t want to spend a bunch of money doing what everybody has to do,” concurs Jason Hayman of Sustainable Marine Technologies. “Why don’t we have a deploy and monitor system which is funding environmental research that is monitoring all the devices and trying to understand the impacts rather than creating artificial hurdles? It’s just not an efficient use of capital at present.”

As trade association RenewableUK puts it there needs to be “a coordinated approach” to understanding environmental impacts.

“Early indications suggest a limited impact on marine mammals from devices tested thus far, but developers should continue to monitor the environmental impact of their devices and consider pooling data on expected and measured impacts, perhaps through industry or government bodies,” adds the Carbon Trust.

It believes “technology developers are best placed to gather evidence on their effect” and, to that end, it has just handed TEL a £389,000 grant towards environmental monitoring work at its consented Ramsey Sound demonstration site off the Pembrokeshire coast in Wales.

TEL will deploy Wales’ first full scale tidal stream energy generator, the 1.2 MW DeltaStream device, there next year and has pledged to make its environmental assessment data available to the wider marine energy industry. The grant represents up to 60% of the funding needed to monitor the environmental impacts of the project and enables TEL to use underwater monitoring techniques and study of the interaction of the tidal energy device with the surrounding marine environment.

“This grant should provide essential insight into the effects of tidal turbines in sensitive marine environments and, as the findings will be made publicly available, benefit the entire industry,” says the Carbon Trust's Director of Innovation, Benj Sykes.

The Carbon Trust's funding comes less than a month after TEL announced an £11m funding package for the manufacture and deployment of the DeltaStream device -- £6.4m is from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) with the balance supplied by TEL’s majority shareholder, Eco2.

“We’re looking to go into the water with the demonstrator in 12 months time, so July/August 2012,” says Williams. “We’ll have a good idea pretty quickly how the technology will react within the environment, but after the full 12-month programme we hope to be in a position where we can take any learnings from the engineering and environmental side to quite quickly accelerate into a situation where we can apply for consent for a mini-array.”

Comfort in published reports

The firm has an “adaptive management plan” in place to help it reduce potential effects on local wildlife.

“Hopefully as this project publishes its results we can diminish some of the risks and have a greater understanding of other risks going forward so some of the studies we’re doing do not need to be repeated. That should accelerate development programmes and provide the regulators and statutory consultees with more confidence,” concludes Williams.