Renewables: putting the wind back in UK sails

An accurate and informed approach to planning is vital if our renewables challenge is to be turned into a reality, argues Mike Osborne

The UK faces a looming energy crisis. All but one of Britain's 12 nuclear power stations - currently generating one fifth of our power supply - will be closed by 2023. Climate change is also at the top of the political agenda, with the Government calling for a significant switch from fossil fuel-based electricity generation to reduce the level of greenhouse gas emissions.

Renewable energy technologies will play a major role in driving our green credentials forward. More specifically, the marine environment is offering a new frontier for power generation at the same time as on-land wind farms face increased opposition. In order to harness this valuable resource, we need to pioneer a more sophisticated approach to developing new sites.

Whether on-land or offshore, a single planning application can require the involvement of local planning authorities, county councils, government offices, agencies and any number of stakeholder groups. On-land, technology, maps and data have been tried and tested, offering a modern and comprehensive source to develop terrestrial wind farms. Historically, however, a structured model has not been readily available in the marine environment. This has hampered a holistic approach to planning for offshore renewable technologies and restricted progress in meeting the Government's renewable targets.

Offshore wind turbines alone have the potential to generate 10% of the UK's electricity by 2010. The UK has the largest offshore wind resource in the world, with relatively shallow waters and strong winds extending into the North Sea. In fact, the UK is estimated to have more than 33% of the total European potential for offshore wind resource - enough to power Britain nearly three times over.

Turbines turn well for carbon
It is also widely understood that a single turbine could save 4,000 tonnes of C02 emissions each year. In recognition of these benefits, the Government has committed to introducing more than 2,000 offshore turbines over the next four years. To meet this target and fulfil the UK's Koyoto commitments, we need to be working from a detailed model of marine referencing. Only then will we ensure that offshore projects are sited sensibly, in areas where they optimise energy supply and minimise the environmental impacts.

Historically, the primary source for marine data has been is primarily available from Admiralty Charts that are designed for navigational purposes. The paper charts become quickly out-of-date and are infamous for simplified data, rather than attention to detail. For instance, depths are portrayed as much shallower than in reality for safety reasons and contours arecan be generalised andor even broken - providing a 19th Century solution to 21st Century planning issues.

This lack of accurate, up-to-date informationcy, coupled with inconsistent techniques for marine planning, is leading to offshore projects running over budget and over schedule. In contrast, if everyone is using the same detailed digital datasets, it is easier and less time consuming to assess plans and achieve consistency. This is particularly important when you consider that the installation of each turbine is a major engineering project.

Whether in a group of two or three or as part of a larger project, the turbines need to be installed in 10m to 20m of water and driven into the seabed. What's more, an offshore wind farm does not stand in isolation. It needs to be supported by a network of pipelines and cables that connect to the National Grid. A lack of understanding about what is happening on the seabed, coupled with water depths and wave conditions will dramatically affect the project delivery and its long-term management. As this is a relatively new environment in which to work, we need to ensure that the right assessment tools are available to do the job.

To support site selection decisions and encourage data sharing, we need to adopt a universal baseline dataset that is up-to-date and error free. SeaZone has been working with the UK Hydrographic Office (UKHO) to meet this challenge, review this and the SeaZone Hydrospatial has been created as a resultto meet this need. Its six layers of data and mapping features set a new benchmark for marine planning activities.

Benefits of Hydrospatial

Hydrospatial is a significant departure from scanning paper charts and is increasingly coherent with the detail of on-land datasets such as the Ordnance Survey. SeaZone Hydrospatial is available in open formats that are compatible will all popular geographic information systems (GIS).

The digital model is also flexible enough to allow new or up-dated data to be integrated easily. SeaZone has developed specific expertise and software for this purpose. Both the public and private sector can therefore reduce long-term costs and achieve greater accuracy in their plans.

Working from incomplete or out-of-date information only leads to unexpected delays and project budgets creeping up. This is a black hole into which the UK and our climate cannot afford to fall. After all, failure to develop effective renewable technologies will see our global economy shrink by 20% and our C02 emissions double by 2050.

The introduction of new technologies will help to challenge poor practices and bring offshore planning into the 21st Century. The SeaZone model promotes a best practice approach to developing offshore wind farms and provides the planning toolkit for turning the UK's renewables challenge into a reality.

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