Marine renewables could be delayed by gap in ecological understanding
Moves to harness the UK’s vast marine renewable resources could be delayed because of a lack of understanding about the potential environmental impacts of new technology, it has been claimed.
As knowledge of marine ecosystems increases, scientists have suggested that whales, seabirds and even plankton could be affected by tidal energy extraction.
Several developers are currently attempting to create large-scale technology which will allow them to harness the power of the Pentland Firth, which runs between Orkney and the Scottish mainland. Indeed, much of Scotland's coast line has the potential for tidal energy extraction.
However, Dr Beth Scott, a marine ecosystems expert, has cautioned that it is still not known whether the effects of the new technology will be adverse, positive or neutral – and says industry and academia need to work more closely together to address the issue.
"Although government agencies and NGOs have now compiled comprehensive reports on the expected potential environmental impacts of the new technology there still remain fundamental unknowns in the marine environment that both ecologists and engineers need to understand," explained Dr Scott, a lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Aberdeen.
She said that "considerable" multi-disciplinary research needed to be carried out to understand where to harvest the resource to ensure the most energy efficient return and least environmental disturbance.
The Scottish Government has targeted supplying 50 per cent of Scottish electricity from renewable sources by 2020, with around a quarter of Europe's marine energy potential believed to lie around shores north of the border.
And last week it was revealed that The Crown Estate intends to lease sections of Scotland's seabed to firms who want to generate electricity from the tides.
Dr Scott said: "As the first few full scale prototypes go into the water it is not only becoming clear that much is unknown about the real-life physical aspects of tidal stream energy, but that the placement of any marine structural development could affect the ecology of the marine environment in both positive and negative ways.
"In particular the placement of tidal devices may have possible direct and indirect ecological effects on the entire food chain, ranging from phytoplankton to large mobile predators such as seabirds, seals and whales. It is essential that marine engineers appreciate the important ecological factors that their devices may influence, even in the early planning stages of development."
She added: "The process of working together aids the flow of knowledge between ecologists and engineers and, crucially, can beneficially influence and ease the implementation of marine renewable energy devices."
Dr Scott will give a talk on the ecosystem management issues surrounding marine renewable developments on September 18 at Innovate with Aberdeen, a showcase of University of Aberdeen research for the business community.
Innovate with Aberdeen is the third in a series of twice yearly University of Aberdeen events which showcase groundbreaking research and technologies and offer the business community collaborative opportunities. Innovate takes place on September 18 at Elphinstone Hall, King's College, University of Aberdeen. Visitors can take their laptop as the facility has wi-fi.
For the full Innovate with Aberdeen programme and to register online for the event visit: www.abdn.ac.uk/innovate.
Notes to Editors
Issued by the Communications Team, Office of External Affairs, University of Aberdeen, King's College, Aberdeen. Tel: (01224) 272014.
Issued on: Wednesday 17th of September 2008