Our Inverness based Senior Environmental Consultant Sarah Rauch-Lynch attended the recent Scottish Renewables Marine Conference in Inverness. As the industry progresses towards full commercialisation, she reports back on some of the issues discussed and considers some of the environmental challenges facing the industry and how they may be overcome.

Sarah Rauch-LynchThe eyes of the world’s energy sector are on Scotland and its rapidly developing Marine Renewables industry as it makes the transition from its research and development phase towards the construction of a commercially viable project. At the Scottish Renewables Marine Conference, held this month in Inverness, the word of the day was ‘optimism’. It seemed appropriate, following as it did the unveiling by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon of the first completed tidal turbine for Atlantis Resource’s MeyGen project at Nigg Energy Park. There was general agreement at the conference that Scotland is currently leading the world in marine renewables and that our unique marine environments provide huge potential for future industry growth.

However, a few critical issues still remain to be addressed, grid connection and access to finance being two in particular that were highlighted at the conference. Innovative solutions such as MeyGen’s shared use of a community wind farm grid connection are bringing success, while alternative solutions currently under investigation include a hydrogen system for tidal energy storage being developed at EMEC in Orkney.

With the approach of commercialisation, key to the success of the first projects to be brought forward will be early involvement of consultants to consider the environmental constraints and challenges, to engage with regulators and other environmental stakeholders and to devise a robust monitoring strategy to have the best possible chance of achieving consent. A good strategy will save those early projects both time and money while ensuring all bases are covered. A robust approach to environmental planning is especially important for these initial forays into commercialisation since failure to manage environmental constraints properly could set the entire industry back – and delays could place Scotland at risk of losing its place as a world leader in the commercial deployment of renewable marine energy technology.

Once suitable baseline studies are undertaken, environmental constraints can be identified and a mitigation strategy to minimise the environmental impact can be put in place. Many of these constraints will be similar to those encountered on land-based renewables projects – for instance, the displacement of birds, the impact on protected species or visual and landscape issues. However, marine renewables projects also present a range of new issues such as the impact of electromagnetic radiation on certain fish species, underwater noise and its impact on fish and cetaceans or the effect of anti-fouling paints on the marine environment.  Of course, much can and should be learned from prior experience in the oil and gas industry. As is the case for marine renewables technology itself, it’s fair to say we are also breaking new ground when it comes to assessing the environmental impact of these projects. The opportunity to maximise the environmental benefits these developments could potentially bring should not be overlooked.        

Much like land-based renewable developments over the past decade, the guidance for supporting environmental information is likely to develop as more projects come online. A good consultant will ensure that future projects remain in line with that guidance as it continues to evolve.  At the construction stage, it will be equally important to ensure that any pre-construction surveys are undertaken and compliance with environmental commitments is monitored through an Environmental Clerk of Works (ECoW).

In its marine renewables policy statement, SNH highlights that: “Many of the potential impacts in the marine environment are characterised by a high level of uncertainty, either because there is an absence of data, or because the effects have not yet been adequately studied.” In that context, it will be particularly important to ensure that these pioneer projects are subject to well-designed environmental monitoring so as to inform future policy and ensure the environmental footprint of marine renewables is minimised. Commercialisation of marine renewables offers a variety of exciting opportunities and potential challenges.

The path to commercialisation will be substantially smoothed by a proactive approach to environmental planning and the mitigation of environmental impacts. Drawing on our decade long experience of onshore renewables and our established expertise in working on marine projects, Atmos Consulting looks forward to growing with the industry and helping to ensure that the path to commercialisation is as smooth as possible.