Sunset Offshore Wind Turbine in a Wind farm under construction of England coast, UK. Image courtesy of Getty Images.  

What is offshore renewable energy?

Our current energy system is heavily reliant on fossil fuels and is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change. Renewable energy provides alternative sources for the future energy system that will reduce our current greenhouse gas emissions and aid in the essential transition away from fossil fuel use.

Offshore renewable energy (ORE) is a key source to achieve this transition that focuses on capturing energy from waves, tidal currents and offshore wind, with technology that will convert energy from these natural elements into usable power for our communities. 

While wave and tidal (marine) and offshore wind are separate sectors, the recent drive to bring together the research community with industry, across offshore renewable energy as a whole, will enable us to identify and exploit the synergies between these energy sources, making this an exciting time for new sector growth.

Sea waves

The UK's race to net zero 2050

In 2019 the UK Government became the world's first major economy to pass legislation towards ending its contribution to global warming. 

Following the declaration of a climate and biodiversity emergency, the legislation will require a reduction of all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

If this target is to be achieved, the UK must revolutionise its energy culture. 

Currently, renewable energy from wind is heavily relied on – as is nuclear – to obtain this ambition, but the heavy demands for energy from society requires a more resilient and diversified stream of resources. 

This new energy landscape will also require a significant change both in how we deliver and use energy as a whole.

Offshore renewable energy is an increasingly attractive solution that offers a reliable and diverse combination of power sources, potential for economic growth, and is embedded in the government's Industrial Strategy.

As an island nation with a long coastline, ORE is a natural solution for the UK. 

It also has the advantage of being locally available, providing energy security, and it is set to become an important export market.

The UK is currently at the forefront of developing, adopting and exporting ORE technology, and so must spearhead research and innovation in this sector to accelerate its adoption worldwide and help to combat climate change. 

The challenges facing ORE

For ORE technology to be successful, there needs to be an appreciation of its interaction with the whole energy system, including a thorough understanding of how the device will affect and be affected by the environment it is in, and affect other users of the space, the grid, and end users of the generated power.

Offshore wind, wave and tidal have all developed at different rates, with offshore wind technology having achieved significant advances and cost reduction thanks to its deployment at scale and incremental development from its onshore counterpart. The three areas have considerable synergies due to facing similar challenges that are presented by the environment they are deployed in, those faced with the operation of offshore technologies, and with the challenges in knowledge sharing.

While costs have reduced significantly for fixed offshore wind, floating offshore wind, tidal stream and wave energy remain too expensive to attract significant investment. Further work is needed for reliable prediction of ORE performance and survivability, particularly when exploring new regions or conditions to deploy in.There is also still much to learn and develop to combat the challenges of data security, monitoring, risk mitigation, and evaluation of offshore renewable energy solutions. 

All of these challenges reinforce the need for improved understanding of the response of ORE systems to environmental inputs in order to improve performance predictions.It is also critical to improve understanding of environmental responses to ORE system presence, to give confidence in resource and environmental impact predictions. 

Leading the UK’s ORE development

The challenges for ORE also present a number of opportunities. The South West is home to a wealth of existing expertise in emerging technologies, and unique natural assets. The region draws from a rich heritage of marine and maritime expertise to maintain its powerful track record as a hub for research and development in these fields.

Our history of excellent coastal engineering spans back over decades, attracting talented scientists to join the ranks in the search for innovative solutions to global engineering challenges.

One such expert is Professor Deborah Greaves, who has been working in the field of engineering for more than twenty years, and is recognised internationally as a world-leading researcher and role model for women in science and engineering – so much so that she was awarded an OBE in 2018 for her significant contributions to research into ORE.

During her time at the University, capabilities have rapidly expanded. There have been critical resources, collaborations and partnerships formed through the flagship Coastal, Ocean and Sediment Transport (COAST) Laboratory and its associated COAST Engineering Research Group, and the expanding networks of PRIMaRE, CCP-WSI, and the Supergen ORE Hub that form research partnerships with industry to encourage knowledge exchange.

Deborah Greaves

The COAST Laboratory

The COAST Laboratory is a state-of-the-art hydrodynamic facility, and the associated COAST Engineering Research Group is a leading group of coastal and ocean engineering researchers that break down the boundaries between the theoretical and the practical aspects of marine engineering, where elaborate experiments combining computational fluid dynamics run hand-in-hand with physical hydrodynamics.

The unique offer of the COAST Laboratory facility is that traditionally rigid boundaries between disciplines are reduced, fostering a stronger collaborative environment that also contributes a significant amount to businesses working in the sector. In having excellence in both theoretical and practical knowledge united, researchers can benefit from greater insight into physical processes thanks to the numerical and computational modelling, while the physical processes can test and prove the theoretical concepts.

It has the impressive ability to replicate almost any ocean condition, where short and long crested waves can be generated in combination with currents at any relative direction in deep water. It has a dedicated tank for sediment dynamics, numerous tilting flumes, and the capability to test the effects of wind in the marine environment. As well as its application for research and business, this has also been a cornerstone teaching facility for the UK's first MSc Marine Renewable Energy that the University introduced in 2010. 

Perhaps the most valuable aspect lies in the unique business model which co-locates business, research and student activity under one roof, with each intrinsically connected to the others. As such, the facility is a cornerstone in developing the industry workforce in the region, and for the wider sector as a whole.

Supergen ORE Hub

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)'s Supergen ORE Hub is spearheaded by Professor Deborah Greaves, leading a consortium of 10 UK universities awarded £9 million to provide research leadership to connect academia, industry, policy and public stakeholders, inspire innovation, and maximise societal value in offshore wind, wave and tidal energy

The Hub also finances a Flexi Fund that is allocated to the wider community in support of research and development progress. 

The first round of funding in 2019 has already awarded nearly £1 million to ten UK University-led consortia, supporting ambitious research projects investigating all aspects of offshore renewable energy.

The EPSRC’s Supergen Programme coordinates research into sustainable power generation and supply, focusing on: bioenergy; energy networks; energy storage; fuel cells; hydrogen and other vectors; marine, wave and tidal; solar technology; and wind power. 

The initiative has led to developments of new tools and technologies, greater collaboration between academia, government and industry, among other benefits.

The Supergen ORE Hub unites the two areas of offshore wind and marine energy due to them having sufficient common or aligned research challenges and synergies in the existing technology.

The Hub is intended to build a collaborative approach between the areas that will share best practice, exploit the similarities, and also support early career researcher development, and the equality, diversity and inclusion agenda.