The emerging marine renewable energy (MRE) industry, also known as ocean energy (mostly wave and tidal energy), yields many unknowns about its potential environmental pressures and impacts. Wave energy converters (WECs) are still perceived by regulators and other stakeholders as risky, particularly for some groups of species and habitats. In many cases, this perception of risk is due to the high degree of uncertainty that results from a scarcity of data collected in the ocean as well as lack of differentiating between real and perceived risks. The main non-technical obstacles in the MRE consenting process seem to be the timeconsuming procedures linked to uncertainty about environmental impacts, the need to consult with numerous stakeholders, and potential conflicts with other marine users. Derisking environmental consenting (permitting) of wave energy projects has therefore been identified as a key challenge in the development of the MRE industry (Strategic Roadmap "Building Ocean Energy for Europe”). MRE stands as one of the main pillars of the European Union (EU) Blue Growth strategy which notes the need for studies, research, and actions on environmental consenting. In order to move beyond current consenting barriers, the European Commission has provided support to increase such research and reduce uncertainty around the potential environmental impacts of MRE development.
Launched in November 2018 and funded by the EU’s European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF), the WESE project aims to improve the current knowledge on potential environmental effects and risks of wave energy, better inform decision-makers and managers on environmental risks, and reduce environmental consenting uncertainty. The WESE Consortium, led by the RD&I Basque center AZTI, has involved key MRE stakeholders from across Portugal and Spain to accomplish these goals. The multidisciplinary team includes test site owners (BiMEP) device developers (IDOM, AW-Energy), consultants, researchers (WavEC, CTN, AZTI), and data managers (Hidromod). The project finished in October 2021.
The workplan of the project was divided in different work packages devoted to:
- Environmental monitoring (underwater acoustics, seabed integrity, and electromagnetic fields) around wave energy devices currently operating at sea:
- Onshore: the Mutriku Oscillating Water Column plant, Basque Country, Spain;
- Nearshore: the WaveRoller surge technology, under testing in Peniche, Portugal;
- Offshore: the MARKMOK-A-5 of IDOM, OWC technology installed in BiMEP, Basque Country, Spain.
- Modelling data for larger arrays (underwater sound propagation, electromagnetic fields, and coastal dynamics);
- Review and implementation of a risk-based approach on the environmental consenting procedures;
- Development of Maritime Spatial Planning tools for site selection under a risk-based approach; and
- Development of a data sharing platform of the results obtained in the project (MARENDATA).
The main outcomes of the project have been the following:
- A better knowledge of some of the pressures and impacts of wave energy converters through environmental monitoring and modelling;
- Efficient guidance for environmental consenting procedures in Spain and Portugal;
- Implementation of innovative Maritime Spatial Planning (MSP) Decision Support Tools (DST) for site selection and suitability maps for future wave energy developments in Portugal and Spain: (i) WEC-ERA tool (Wave Energy Converters Ecological Risk Assessment tool, https://aztidata.es/wec-era/) and VAPEM tool (Ecological Assessment and Marine Spatial Planning Tool, https://aztidata.es/vapem/)
- A data sharing platform, MARENDATA (https://marendata.eu/) that will serve data providers, developers, and regulators.