Mapping the deep
For a country bordered on nearly all sides by water, it is only natural an important part of Scotland’s make-up is its image as a maritime nation.
The North Sea and the part of the Atlantic Ocean which lies off the country’s west coast are home to fishing boats and oil platforms. Directly or indirectly, a big part of the country’s economy comes from the sea.
However, for all the benefits contained in those waters, there is still a lot to learn about what lies beneath.
While on land, detailed knowledge of the impact of developments on landscapes and the animals and plantlife that inhabit them has been built up – the picture offshore is still relatively blurred. But, as the next wave of economic development offshore approaches, all that is beginning to change.
The growth of marine renewables – wind, wave and tidal – is built up to be the future of both Scotland’s energy supply and providing an economic boost from a modern-day industrial revolution. But as Holyrood investigates, the growth of this industry has also been the driving force behind new research to ensure that better protection can be achieved for the physical environment and the wildlife that depends on it.
About 25 per cent of European offshore wind resource potential is within Scottish waters as well as up to 25 per cent of the tidal and 10 per cent of wave capacity.
The Scottish Government believes these offshore installments will be able to produce 12 gigawatts of energy by 2020 and sees the marine renewables sector as a major plank of its move towards a greener, low-carbon economy.
But without the research to go with it – what should be built where and in what quantities – the dangers are that developments could do more harm than good.
Five offshore wind developments are proposed for Scottish territorial waters, leased by the Crown Estate, all at the pre-consent phase, totalling more than 900 turbines and a capacity of 4,765MW.
In addition, in the Crown Estate’s Round Three lease are projects for the Moray Firth and Firth of Forth with a joint generation capacity of nearly 5,000MW.
At the same time, the Scottish Government has been consulting the public on its plans to create a National Marine Plan, as well as a network of 33 marine protected areas with the aim of giving greater protection to the physical environment while enabling fishing, oil and gas, ferry transport – and this new industry of offshore renewables to share the space in a sustainable way.
Scottish waters are estimated to be home to around 6,500 marine species, ranging from the plant life on the seabed, fish, sharks and mammals such as dolphins and killer whales which can be seen in the Moray Firth.
In addition, the marine environment also attracts about five million seabirds – making the area a region of international importance for bird life.
RSPB Scotland has been one of the foremost campaigners for better marine protection and wants to ensure development does not further endanger bird populations.
The charity estimates that 50 per cent of all seabird species have suffered drops in their numbers and since 1986, 10 out of 18 monitored species have suffered long-term declines.
While supporting the move towards renewable energy, it has had a policy of opposing wind-farm developments in particular when it feels they would have a negative impact on wildlife.
It recently described a 47-turbine wind farm in Sutherland from SSE as “one of the most worrying it has ever seen” as it feared it would have a damaging impact on the vast expanse of peatland known as the Flow Country. However, when it comes to offshore, RSPB Scotland says there is still more information needed.
But Aedán Smith, head of planning and development at RSPB Scotland, said further research is required to highlight what the risks are.
“We are starting from the point of view that climate change is bad for birds across the world and in Scotland. Part of the solution is renewables, but there wouldn’t be any point in delivering renewables that were going to be directly causing harm to wildlife.
“But also, we’re starting from a relatively low base in terms of our understanding of where the birds are and how they might interact with offshore wind farms. They are a relatively new thing and hardly any are in operation anywhere in the world.
“Trying to predict what the impact on wildlife might be is a real challenge and also to try and work out how important the proposed site is for birds is quite a challenge as well.”
Smith said that while spatial planning on land was a reasonably comprehensive network of protections such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, but offshore was still not as far advanced.
“It’s a disadvantage not only for protecting the wildlife but also for the developers – when they look at a map of the sea,” he said.
“It’s a big frustration for RSPB as an organisation because we’ve been pushing authorities and government to do more survey work and get designated sites offshore for a couple of decades and of course, it’s only now development pressures appear that suddenly it’s become obvious it would have been useful to have done this a while ago – we’re trying to catch up.”
The Crown Estate, which manages a multi-billion-pound portfolio across the UK of urban, rural and marine estates and is responsible for leasing for offshore renewables on the Scottish seabed, developed the Marine Resource System (MaRS) which, with 450 different national datasets, provides a map of the seabed that is available to view online.
It has also, alongside Scottish Government agency Marine Scotland and the UK Department for Energy and Climate Change, set up the Offshore Renewables Joint Industry Programme, which is compiling the most comprehensive picture ever of the offshore marine environment, with investigations including the risks of bird collision with wind turbines, acoustic disturbance from renewables installations and techniques to mitigate against noise caused by piling during the construction phase.
The strait that separates mainland Scotland and the Orkney Islands is a key development site for renewable energy, which has included a £5.7m investment from the Crown Estate on the world’s first commercial-scale wave and tidal leasing.The need for increased research is also a huge opportunity, particularly for the world of academia. The most recent example of this is the Environmental Research Institute at North Highland College UHI, in Thurso, which has launched its own Pentland Salmon Initiative.
At the same time, the region is of central importance to the fishing industry, attracting the migrating Atlantic salmon.
The ERI’s initiative will include tagging salmon and producing detailed computer modelling, assessing the environmental impact, including the potential effects of noise from construction or operation.
Professor Stuart Gibb, the ERI’s director who is UHI’s leading professor in Environmental Sciences, said he hoped the initiative would address “potential conflict” between the iconic species and the marine renewable energy sector.
He said: “The Scottish Government has laid down very ambitious renewable energy targets, but there’s a general consensus that for us to reach those targets, we must develop the sector in a sustainable manner.
“It must be economically viable, but it must be environmentally sustainable as well.”
He added: “The particular interest here is we have a particularly iconic species and we have these two very important economic sectors meet in the highly dynamic waters of the Pentland Firth – and we just happen to be a research organisation sitting overlooking these energetic waters.
“If we’re not going to address these issues, we would be really missing a trick.”
Although it is known that Atlantic Salmon spend most of their lifecycle in the North Atlantic, Gibb said very little is known about their migratory pattern, whether they hug the coastline of the Pentland Firth before moving into the rivers connecting it, or if they swim out into the middle of the North Sea and migrate northwards.
Gibb said this research was not just giving a better understanding of the marine environment, but also served as a perfect opportunity to develop new modules and new students to be part of an emerging global sector.
Just as the oil and gas industry in Aberdeen sparked new training courses and needed more skilled workers, he said the ERI research could lead to exporting not just Scotland’s knowledge, but also new skilled workers.
He added that it could mean highly-skilled workers who have been based at Dounreay could be retrained to work in a new industry “Making sure people have the opportunity to transition from a nuclear past and a renewables future. Can we transition these people from a sector which a government doesn’t want to see continued, to one there is an interest in?”
While this research looks at one particular species in one stretch of Scottish waters, there is hope that the modelling used could also help inform the wider debate for other species and further offshore.
Research will be carried out over the next few years and Gibb said since the confirmation it was starting, there had already been “significant interest” from river trusts, developers and government agencies, interested in what the results can show.
“It has hit a pertinent and contemporary issue,” he said.
The consultation for the new National Marine Plan and Marine Protected Areas has seen events taking place in every remote part of Scotland over the summer. The research that went into the proposed protected areas included detailed scientific research compiled by Scottish Natural Heritage and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee.
Smith said RSPB Scotland, which has been calling for better protection of the marine environment for the last 20 years, was raising issues on development at a high level – and the organisation has been lobbying ministers for change.
He said: “There are lots of uncertainties so we need to go a bit canny with how we’re developing.
“If we put everything forward in one go that’s quite a lot of development at one time into a natural environment which hasn’t had that sort of development in it.
“We don’t know what the impact will be and it could be hard to reverse it if things do go wrong.”
He added: “If we’re building this in the natural environment, what other positives are we putting back there?
“We’ve not got our MPA network out there yet and even when it does come forward, it’s not going to be comprehensive, by any means.
“We need to be thinking about our marine environment more strategically and more holistically.”
Places like the Bass Rock off the coast of East Lothian, which is covered in gannets in the summer months, are testament to the sheer numbers of seabirds that make their home around Scotland.
The nation’s seabird populations are internationally significant, there are about five million of them and about one third of the EU’s breeding seabirds are based in Scotland.
The charity, which has 90,000 supporters in Scotland, has been asking for assurances from the Government that the network will include protection for seabirds that feed at sea, and wants an area that protects sandeels in the Firth of Forth, close to one of the areas of search for future offshore development.
Elsewhere, though, there is confidence that the current proposals will improve knowledge of the marine environment.
Although the Crown Estate, which manages the leasing of the seabed for renewables, aquaculture and other activity, is a commercial organisation – using the profit from assets to go back to the UK Treasury, one of its roles is “stewardship of the environment”.
Although its response to the Scottish Government consultation which closes next month has not been finalised, a spokeswoman said: “The National Marine Plan will play a vital role in the planning, management and sustainable development of Scotland’s marine resources. This consultation is therefore an important milestone in setting the legislative and policy context for marine planning and in giving clarity and certainty for industry and other users.
“Regional marine planning partnerships will have a key role in developing and implementing regional marine plans. We look forward to seeing further information on how national strategic and sectoral objectives should be transposed into regional planning and how local stakeholders will be engaged in the process.”
More information doesn’t just help the NGOs campaigning for greater protection. The greater understanding and wider research available means more certainty for developers that projects can go ahead – provided they are in the right place.
Lindsay Leask, senior policy officer at Scottish Renewables, said: “For years, research into the health and workings of our seas has been shockingly sparse in comparison to the terrestrial environment.
“The growth of offshore renewable energy has sparked a boom in marine research that is helping us to understand our seas more now than perhaps ever before.”
She said that Scotland had been a key destination for marine energy since the opening of the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney a decade ago.
“We have more expertise and understanding of how wave and tidal devices interact in our seas than probably any other country in the world, but like any research, there’s no end point; the motivation to keep learning will never stop for this industry.”
In 2011, Marine Scotland created a ‘one-stop shop for offshore wind, wave and tidal developers to obtain consents and licences for marine renewables developments, with the aim of creating a simpler and more streamlined process for applications.
It aims to provide a decision on all applications within nine months where no public local inquiry is called.
Leask said: “Before a marine energy device can get wet in seawater, the developer must satisfy planners that they have thoroughly researched the marine environment they plan to work in.
“This normally takes between two to three years of dedicated research into all aspects of the surrounding environment, including bird, marine mammal, and fisheries activity, as part of the Environmental Impact Assessment produced for their planning application.”
She added: “The industry is now also looking at ways developments can work together to deepen our understanding of environmental interactions beyond the project specifics, at a more strategic level.
“This sound basis of understanding is absolutely crucial to ensuring devices are deployed in harmony with the surrounding environment. A thorough foundation of research with clear, measurable outcomes gives planners, industry and investors, a degree of certainty over the risks of the project. Without it, investors will not invest and planning consents will not be forthcoming.
“But the value of the research stretches far beyond the individual projects. It also adds to the growing body of knowledge surrounding Scotland’s often mysterious marine environment.”