To advance the marine energy industry, there is a need to not only focus research on designing and testing devices, but also to examine potential environmental effects on marine animals and habitats. To date, the environmental focus has been on interactions of small numbers of marine energy devices with the environment, including collision by animals with turbine blades, underwater sound and electromagnetic field emissions, habitat alteration, and changes in oceanographic processes. The international collaboration Ocean Energy Systems (OES)-Environmental, representing 16 nations, is expanding its view of potential environmental and ecological effects of marine energy development to include a broader look at higher level effects, including cumulative effects, an ecosystem approach, and scaling up effects from single devices to arrays.
Cumulative effects result from interacting activities either across space or through time in one location, due to sequential or overlapping activities. The understanding of environmental effects from marine energy has matured to a point where there is sufficient information to make consideration of potential cumulative effects a tangible question. Consequently, although many knowledge gaps remain, now is a good time for OES-Environmental to join other marine industries in considering cumulative effects. With this topic, we investigate cumulative effects of marine energy developments, how these effects combine with or affect other human uses of the ocean, and the tools and research studies that can be used to best assess these effects.
To address the potential effects to the broader marine ecosystem, the ecosystem approach undertaken by OES-Environmental is defined by the international Convention on Biological Diversity, which currently does not address marine energy. While the ecosystem approach is a large concept that integrates environmental, economic, and social sciences, the current work of OES-Environmental focuses mainly on the environmental aspects of the approach. We are exploring how marine energy development and operation may affect the ecosystem into which it is deployed, and how ecosystem services are affected and/or assisted by marine energy. A conceptual framework is under development to qualitatively describe the interactions between an ecosystem’s components and marine energy systems.
Future large arrays of marine energy will be in operation for decades and scaling up our understanding of environmental effects on marine animals and habitats is crucial. Although our knowledge on stressor-receptor interactions for single devices and small arrays continues to improve, remaining uncertainties complicate the task of predicting how marine animals and habitats will interact with and be affected by large-scale arrays. We are examining how to apply the knowledge of stressor-receptor interactions from single devices to effects from arrays. We are also exploring interactions that are not significant around single devices but may become important around large-scale arrays, such as changes to oceanographic systems or displacement of marine organisms by marine energy developments.
By exploring these new topics, OES-Environmental lays out the pathways to expand our understanding of the environmental and ecological effects across the appropriate spatiotemporal scales, based on existing research, leveraging information on devices, and highlighting gaps in scientific knowledge. The investigation of each topic will result in a white paper that will identify main knowledge gaps, limitations encountered during the work, future research needs, and plans for a robust scientific approach for testing hypotheses that can be applied to increase our knowledge of the environmental effects of marine energy development at greater spatial, temporal, and technological scales.