Placing Wales at the fore of marine renewable energy

Led by Professor Simon Neill, Quotient was a research cluster brought together by funding from the Low Carbon Energy and Environment Research Network Wales. Hear how support for innovative research at the right time has enormous knock-on effects for UK industry and economy.

It may well be true that “time and tide wait for no man” and so it would make sense to use the constant provision of energy offered to us by the tide.

With the resource potential of marine renewable energy being dramatically underdeveloped around the world, it had to be quantified to establish if it would play a valuable role in the transition to low carbon energy.

Back in 2013, scientists from Bangor University, Cardiff University and Swansea University came together to establish what marine energy resources were held around the UK, how they could best be optimised and how the environmental impacts of the technology could be minimised.

Based at Bangor University in North Wales, Professor Simon Neill led the cluster of experts.

“This was a highly collaborative  and complementary process between the universities. It really did strengthen our bonds and enable projects to succeed and progress. I would now naturally work pan-Wales to better achieve my research goals.”

Bangor took the lead with their expertise in oceanography, whereas Cardiff brought in their engineering prowess, and Swansea complemented all of this with their mastery of computational dynamics. Between the three universities they were able to determine which marine areas had the best energy potential, what devices might best be able to capture that energy, and also how this energy conversion might affect the surrounding environment and the equipment itself.

Aside from the benefits gained by working with an extended research group, Simon felt that the investment in people was an immeasurable gain from the funding and formation of the research clusters. A PhD student at Cardiff University and a postdoctoral researcher at each of Bangor and Swansea Universities had a great effect on the outputs of the research.

Simon in particular, worked alongside the Bangor University ‘postdoc’ Matt Lewis who used computer modelling to determine where marine renewables should be placed. In particular, they examined how waves and tides interact with one another, and how turbulence affected device performance.

“a research fellow like this is the best sort of funding you can get”

Key outcomes from the cluster included characterising how floating tidal devices perform in differing conditions, in-depth insight into the site-specific factors that affect turbulence from underwater turbines, identification of the optimal sites for tidal arrays around the UK, leading the research agenda towards realistic site conditions rather than idealised experiments and establishing the extent at which wave conditions and turbulence affect reliability of underwater devices.

Whilst the initial Quotient cluster work had plenty of positive research and material outcomes of its own, it also laid the way to garner further funding support for the area of research. The £7million European Smart Efficient Energy Centre (SEEC) project, which sees members of the devised clusters now working together in a hub, spans nuclear and marine energy as well as understanding the importance of energy efficient and composite structures within the two sectors and in general.

Under the SEEC project, Simon and his colleagues investigated dispersal of marine plastics and conducted investigations into wind energy resource. This involved working with industry at a time when the sector became a prominent focus for the UK government. As a result of this, Simon and his team worked on a Marine Energy Engineering Centre of Excellence (MEECE) project to ‘place Wales and Welsh companies at the heart of the UK’s growing marine and offshore renewable energy sectors’.

“90% of the world’s tidal energy resources is distributed across just five countries, one of them being the UK.”

Considering the reliability of tidal energy, it’s believed that a major barrier to its development is in setting up the technology in the first place. Whilst there are financial incentives in place to assist implementation of other low-carbon energy supplies, Simon hopes that the research he and others have undertaken will pave the way for marine renewable energy initiatives to come into fruition and from there take hold as a viable and successful energy source for the UK.

Simon and his fellow researchers have now worked alongside companies proposing underwater turbines off the coast of the Isle of Anglesey in North Wales and the south coast of Cornwall. Their research is helping the companies further understand the resource and optimise their arrays of devices for the environment.

Simon’s work conducted under the SEEC project and under the Low Carbon Energy and Environment Research Network before that also paved the way to expand IMARDIS, an open access database initially developed to support the expansion of the marine renewables sector under the SEACAMS2 project. Here they share high resolution data on the seabed and in the water column. Importantly, this database may help to stimulate growth in the marine renewables sector around Wales by removing some of the expensive information barriers placed in front of industry.

Simon’s story shows that having access to capacity building funds can have wide-reaching, knock-on effects. Enabling our scientists to capitalise on research at the right time puts Welsh research at the fore.

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