Marine energy - a new challenge in EIA

10th July 2012

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  • Renewable



Experts from Royal Haskoning discuss the difficulties of conducting environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for new wave and tidal developments and how to overcome them

The wave and tidal or "wet renewables" energy sector is a rapidly moving one, with a recent boom in developments, advances in technologies and new project leasing rounds.

Still in relative infancy, wet renewables technologies continue to develop and adapt to exploit the UK’s huge potential for development, largely present in remote locations such as northern and western Scotland.

Different needs, but a shared objective

For EIA practitioners, a detailed project description is paramount to conducting the robust assessment required to support consent applications. Once the general nature of the technology is understood, a number of elements of design are fundamental to identify the scale of the impacts and the potential receptors. Single design decisions may increase or decrease the significance of potential impacts on multiple receptors simultaneously.

In contrast, design engineers, developing a technology as efficient, robust and cost-effective as possible, want to minimise finalising many aspects of the design and installation methodologies until trials have been run, problems solved and necessary changes made.

Is there a problem?

Increasingly, developments need to enter the consenting process while their preferred technology remains under development; aiming to have consent in place (albeit with a series of conditions) as soon as developers are ready to deploy their technology. Gaining consent increases public and industry confidence in the sector and increases opportunities for financial investment. To meet ambitious government energy generation targets, it is vital to maximise funding opportunities and investment.

Being such a young industry new questions arise continuously. Knowledge is developing rapidly as the sector evolves and the various technologies become more understood.

As some concerns are resolved, other new potential impacts arise and this can lead to a need for new research and developing assessment strategies with regulators while feeding these unforeseen issues back into the design process.

While offshore wind has coalesced around a particular identifiable technology, this has yet to happen with wet renewables further increasing uncertainties for EIA.

Recently the ”Rochdale envelope” has been adopted to address uncertainty in design, where a worst-case buildable and practicable scenario is assessed in the EIA.

However, with the increase in novel and unproven technologies associated with wet renewables, there is the risk that the envelope is stretched too far. The end result may be an assessment of a project description that presents an unrealistic development scenario which, in combination with new impacts, creates real problems in producing an assessment which is realistic and suitably precautionary given regulators legitimate concerns.


Clearly the process is more than simply cranking a handle to produce the design, assessment and consent decision. Communication is of paramount importance both within the project team (including engineers and environmental practitioners) and between the project team and regulators, ensuring the right information is provided to the right people at the right time.

Early consultation between the EIA team and the engineers is advised, to enable ongoing and regular discussion of the development’s opportunities and constraints, while factoring in programme expectations.

Site visits are an invaluable opportunity for the engineering team to understand the physical, environmental and cultural restrictions they may face during the development, so these can be considered from the beginning.

If the EIA practitioner is scheduled to visit the site at the same time, both parties have a greater opportunity to learn about the other’s discipline for that specific site and technology, and the processes for both design and assessment become more streamlined.

Ultimately, an EIA practitioner needs to understand how the development may be built and work and therefore how potential impacts may occur, while the engineer needs to understand the sensitivities of the receiving environment to enable design of a consentable project.

The engineering and EIA teams must not work in isolation, but should be actively brought together to minimise the risk of spiralling costs or designing a development that will not achieve consent.

It reduces project risk if a generous study area is used for baseline surveys, given that the assumptions made at the scoping stage may not hold true at a more advanced stage of the project due to changes in design or environmental/community constraints.

Regulators need to understand what they are being asked agree consent, in order to deal with an application. This means that the Rochdale envelope should be used with care and with evidence provided about the technology wherever possible.

To prevent refusal of consent, or unnecessarily onerous licence conditions, a refined design is required. It is also essential for regulators to have the opportunity to understand the specific issues surrounding each individual project. As ever, early, regular and informed engagement is the key.

This article was written as a contribution to the EIA Quality Mark’s commitment to improving EIA practice.

Jen Trendall is a senior environmental scientist, Paolo Pizzolla is a senior environmental consultant and Frank Fortune is a technical director at Royal Haskoning


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