Coastal research will help ensure projects are ecologically sound

Health Wales is highlighting the work of Welsh Crucible researchers – the cream of Welsh research talent. Dr Simon Neill explains his research into  the impact of tidal energy and other sources of marine renewable  energy

ANYONE living by the sea will be familiar with the twice daily rise and fall  of the tides.

What is less familiar is that these tides cause the water to flow and in some  regions these tidal currents can be very strong – such as past exposed headlands  and through narrow channels. These regions of strong tidal flow have been  identified as desirable places to install farms of marine current turbines or  underwater windmills for electricity generation.

In contrast to wind energy, which is intermittent, this form of renewable  energy is predictable. We can tell what the tides will be doing 100 years from  now, but can’t tell what the winds will be doing tomorrow.

<a href=”;slot=article%5Fmpu;sect=wales%2Dnews;templ=page;cat=News;reg=Wales;st=other;oid=29769157;sz=300×250;gs_cat=GS_CHANNELS;tile=4;ord=558459878?&#8221; target=”_blank”> <img src=”;slot=article%5Fmpu;sect=wales%2Dnews;templ=page;cat=News;reg=Wales;st=other;oid=29769157;sz=300×250;gs_cat=GS_CHANNELS;tile=4;ord=558459878?&#8221; width=”300″ height=”250″ border=”0″ alt=”article_mpuAdvertisement” /> </a>Wales has some of the best sites in the world for exploiting the tidal stream  resource. For this reason, leading developers are planning large-scale tidal  energy farms around the coast of Wales.

Much of my research is concerned with understanding how to maximise the tidal  energy resource once tidal energy schemes are scaled up, making them competitive  with other forms of electricity generation such as nuclear or coal-fired power  stations.

I also investigate how these large tidal energy farms will interact with the  environment.

One particular aspect of the environment which could be affected by large  tidal energy schemes is the movement of sand around our seas. Tidal currents  continually transport sand, feeding into coastal systems, like beaches and  offshore sand banks. These coastal systems remove the energy from storm waves so  are vital natural forms of coastal protection.

Any large tidal energy scheme which interferes with the processes maintaining  these natural systems could make our coasts more exposed, affecting flood  risk.

In my research, I use computer models to understand the natural movement of  sand, and how this varies from year to year and from season to season.

I incorporate tidal energy farms into these models, and determine what impact  energy extraction is likely to have.

I make recommendations on the scale and layout of schemes, which will be  appropriate for different locations. For example, at a particular location it  may be appropriate to site the planned tidal energy farm slightly further  offshore to minimise interaction with the natural coastal dynamics.

Although tidal currents may be slightly weaker further offshore and less  electricity will be generated, this could be a small price to pay if it prevents  any negative impacts to our natural coastal defences.

One of the most exciting developments of this research is the possibility of  strategically siting tidal energy farms to enhance coastal flood protection by  geo-engineering the sand resource.

This is particularly relevant in the context of the predicted impact of  sea-level rise on increased coastal flooding over the next few decades.

With the rapid global commercialisation of marine renewable energy now taking  place, from prototype to large-scale electricity generation, it is essential and  timely that research into understanding the resource and potential environmental  impacts is being carried out now.

If Wales is to fully exploit its world-class renewable energy potential, it  is important these issues are being investigated for Welsh coastal waters by  researchers in Welsh universities.

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