Annual Report 2017

Environmental Issues on Ocean Energy



Senior Program Manager for Coastal and Marine Waters
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory


OES: What are the key concerns regarding environmental risks of ocean energy to the marine environment? Is it possible to “retire” some of the environmental effects that have been potentially assigned to ocean energy developments?

Andrea Copping: The key environmental concerns for marine renewable energy (MRE) concern possible interactions between portions of the devices and systems (anchors, foundations, mooring lines, etc.) and marine animals and the habitats that support those animals. As larger scale commercial developments come online, additional concerns may be raised about alterations in ecosystem processes, like sediment transport or water quality, by commercial wave or tidal farms. There are many possible interactions and potential effects that regulators and stakeholders may assign to MRE devices and development; at least a portion of those interactions and effects have been evaluated and generally determined to be unimportant - for example, the release of chemicals from coatings or spills of lubricating oil. We can decrease the importance or “retire” other risks by applying existing research findings - for example, we are close to “retiring” effects of electromagnetic fields [EMF] on organisms. Yet other interactions may continue to be of concern, and will require monitoring of active MRE sites and additional research - for example, collision risk for animals with tidal turbine blades- and still others may require long-term mitigation - for example, siting devices and cable runs to avoid rare habitats like rocky reefs.

Potential environmental concerns may be similar for wave and tidal devices, such as changing behaviour of animals moving past MRE arrays, potential effects of EMFs from cables and energized devices on animal welfare, and disruption of animal behaviour by underwater sound from generators or other moving parts. However, some stakeholders still have concerns that tidal devices could create risk of collision with marine animals that does not apply to WECs as well as the potential for interacting with mooring lines and draped cables in the water column.

OES: So far there are no large arrays of wave or tidal devices operating in the ocean over long periods and therefore many uncertainties currently remain about their interference with marine life. How far do you think knowledge from other industries - buoys and platforms, power and telecom cables in the seafloor, etc. – could be transferable to ocean energy?

Andrea Copping: The oceans have been used for industrial purposes for centuries and the interaction of vessels, navigation markers, piers, underwater installations, and other devices with marine life have been studied as these industries and uses have progressed. Some of these industrial uses and installations in the oceans are analogous to MRE and can inform our understanding of interactions between MRE devices and systems, and marine life, while others that may resemble MRE devices actually differ in important ways.


Structures like buoys, platforms, piers, and docks have been deployed in the marine environment for centuries, creating hard substrates that can attract fouling communities made up largely of invertebrates and algae. These structures act as fish aggregating devices or artificial reefs, attracting fish and other mobile organisms. Similarly, the presence of offshore oil and gas drilling rigs or offshore wind foundations aggregate fish and other species, and may help explain how animals interact with mooring lines and electrical cables. These structures can also help us predict how changes in wave fields will occur from surface-deployed WECs, and how changes in flow can affect sediment transport and water quality.

Electrical export cables for MRE installations will generate EMF emissions that may affect the orientation, navigation, or hunting ability of electro- or magneto-sensitive species. There have been electrified cables in the marine environment for more than a hundred years that emit measurable EMF signatures, including subsea cables for power and telecommunications, bridges, tunnels, and offshore
wind farms.

Anthropogenic noise has been shown to affect marine animal communication, navigation, and hunting.  Underwater sound from installing MRE devices, particularly if pile driving is needed, is equivalent to in-water work done for installation of bridges, piers, and other marine infrastructure.

MRE development is likely to require installation and maintenance vessels which will generate sound, although these sounds are, like pile driving, typically of short duration. The sounds from operational MRE devices differ somewhat from sound from other industries, but are generally of lower amplitude than other industrial uses such as commercial shipping. Not all industry analogs are appropriate for determining potential MRE effects. For example, the risks to marine life from conventional hydropower turbines and rotating ship propellers are not equivalent to risks from tidal turbines.

Tidal turbines are generally larger than conventional hydropower turbines, have slower rotational speeds, and slower blade tip speeds, producing lower shear stresses, turbulence, and water pressure, resulting in less dangerous interactions with animals, even if collisions occur. Also marine animals have room to avoid and evade tidal turbines in the ocean, while conventional hydropower in rivers and streams force fish through turbines mounted in dams.

Ship propellers are also poor analogs because they have significantly higher rotational speeds than tidal turbines and can be moving laterally at faster speeds than marine animals can swim.

OES: Would you like to mention any particular interesting research that highlights advances in the ocean energy industry, with respect to environmental issues and responsible development?

Andrea Copping: I have been really proud of the research community for focusing their work on the most critical issues facing the industry, and producing some really innovative and creative studies. For tidal turbines, the issue that slows consenting and potentially will require expensive monitoring studies concerns the risk of marine mammals and fish colliding with moving turbine blades. The most experienced marine mammal researchers have come together with instrumentation specialists to develop ways to observe marine mammals (mostly seals and sea lions) interacting around turbines. Great work has been done in the UK observing seals around turbines in Northern Ireland1,2, in Scotland at EMEC3 and the MeyGen array, and in Ramsey Sound, Wales4,5. Instrumentation to detect seals approaching a turbine has been developed in Puget Sound, US, and the risk of a collision with a turbine has been modeled in the US and in the UK. Other important work has been done to examine the potential effects of fish aggregating around WECs in Sweden and the US6.

Another set of studies has measured EMF from cables in the environment in the North Sea7,8 and in US waters9, as well as studies on sound outputs from MRE devices10.

And of course there is so much more that can be found in the Annex IV State of the Science report, with all the scientific papers and references found on Tethys (


OES: Regulators often request extensive baseline and post-installation data from developers, assuming that at least some of the interactions of the ocean energy devices bear significant risks. How can we help regulators support streamlined processes to this respect?

Andrea Copping: For most nations engaged in MRE development, regulators must follow environmental legislation and regulations that require a significant level of evidence to support conclusions about whether potential impacts are acceptable. Many regulators consider at least some interactions of MRE devices with the environment as highly risky, often due to high uncertainty about these interactions. This uncertainty drives some regulators to take a precautionary approach, requesting extensive pre- and post-installation data collection for each MRE project.

In many cases, the regulators’ perception of high risk appears arises from a lack of understanding of the features and operation of MRE systems; the newness of the technologies, many of which bear little resemblance to other industrial uses; and pressure from other stakeholders who fear competition and degradation of the ocean. There are opportunities to help regulators feel more confident in moving forward with less stringent monitoring requirements by providing information and access to research results, through a strong outreach and engagement program. Tethys, our online knowledge management system, provides a wealth of information on MRE devices, interactions between marine animals/habitats and devices, and access to many researchers and their work. It is the mission of Annex IV to gather existing information and make it accessible to the community – regulators, concerned stakeholders, researchers, and MRE developers. We host webinars with prominent international researchers; include regulators and other stakeholders in workshops and conferences Annex IV sponsors; and we make outcomes of research deliberations and forums readily available online. The major theme of Annex IV work during 2018 is to examine how data collected at early project locations can be used to inform consenting for later projects, around the world. This Data Transferability and Collection Consistency theme has us working closely with regulators to determine their information needs, to understand their acceptance of using data from other jurisdictions, and to develop a set of best practices for extending what regulators can learn from the data collected.


OES: Reducing uncertainty about interactions of ocean energy technologies with the marine environment is a critical step to ensuring that the ocean energy industry continues to grow. In your opinion, what is the path forward for the industry in the face of this scientific uncertainty?

Andrea Copping: Uncertainty surrounding potential effects of MRE development stems largely from a lack of data and understanding of many of the interactions of devices with the environment. With few devices in the water, and even fewer arrays operating, there has not been sufficient time to develop strong predictive models or to rely on a long history of project outcomes. The first step in decreasing uncertainty is to assure that all high quality existing data and information are widely known, and that new information is incorporated into our understanding, as soon as it has been evaluated. In addition, well planned strategic research projects should be undertaken to tackle difficult questions such as the mechanics and outcomes of animals moving close to turbine blades. Strategic research questions should be supported with additional monitoring data, especially around MRE deployments in test centers. Strategic research on MRE interactions will be most valuable if it is planned and executed internationally, bringing together the best researchers, working around deployed devices. As more devices are deployed, our knowledge will increase rapidly; we are currently limited by locations for data collection and research studies.

OES: Annex IV has been running since 2010. After 7 years with continuous collection of data and knowledge on environmental issues of ocean energy projects in the sea, how would you assess the level to which this may have contributed in some countries to drive the processes for consenting projects?

Andrea Copping:
It is difficult to quantify the impact that Annex IV has had on the industry around the world. We consider that the continued engagement of more and more countries in Annex IV demonstrates that those nations see value in participating. The 2016 State of the Science (SoS) report has been well received with over 4,600 views of the report, in addition to over 500 people who have participated in webinars and conference sessions on SoS. We routinely track metrics on how many people access papers and reports on Tethys, as well as how many participate in webinars (either live or in subsequent downloads from Tethys); these metrics shows continued steady growth. We reach over 1500 people every two weeks with Tethys Blast, providing updates on papers as well as news and upcoming MRE events. We continue to get enthusiastic participation in our sponsored workshops – for example the recent workshop on social and economic data needed for consenting held around EWTEC in Ireland attracted 36 registrants, while over 50 participants showed up for the workshop. And perhaps best of all, we are told routinely by developers, researchers, regulators, teachers, and other stakeholders, that they use the material gathered by Annex IV, that they value the information, and that it provides a unique resource.

OES: Is it possible to “retire” some of the environmental risks that have been potentially assigned to ocean energy developments? With respect to other anthropogenic causes of the global change (climate, biodiversity, etc.), are we able to set a clear context for the assessment of the relative impacts of ocean energy systems?

Andrea Copping:
I believe we can retire certain environmental risks – in fact I think we already have retired some, such as chemical leaching – as more data around devices become available, and as strategic research answers difficult questions. This increase in knowledge and decrease in uncertainty should allow regulators and stakeholders to be more comfortable with accepting that the risks to the marine environment are not significant or can be effectively mitigated. We are well on our way to reaching milestones for retirement for several of these risks; I believe that in future we will hear less concern and fewer requests to monitor EMF emissions, and to examine effects on benthic environments.


1 Joy, R., J. Wood, C. Sparling, D. Tollit, A. Copping, and B. McConnell. Marine Pollution Bulletin. Harbor seal behaviour and avoidance of an operational tidal turbine: A case study from Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland. In press.
2 Keenan, G.; Sparling, C.; Williams, H.; Fortune, F. (2011). SeaGen Environmental Monitoring Programme: Final Report. Report by Royal Haskoning. pp 81.
3 Thompson, D., Onoufriou, J., Brownlow, A., and Morris, C. 2014. Data based estimates of collision risk: an example based on harbour seal tracking data around a proposed tidal turbine array in the Pentland Firth. Sea Mammal Research Unit Report to Scottish Natural Heritage and Marine Scotland, University of St. Andrews, Inverness, UK.
4 Sparling, C.; Smith, K.; Benjamins, S.; Wilson, B.; Gordon, J.; Stringell, T.; Morris, C.; Hastie, G.; Thompson, D.; Pomeroy, P. (2015). Guidance to Inform Marine Mammal Site Characterisation Requirements at Wave and Tidal Stream Energy Sites in Wales. Report by Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU). pp 88.
5 Bromley, P.; Boake, C.; Broudic, M. (2015). An Integrated Solution to Real Time Marine Mammal Monitoring for Tidal Turbines. Paper Presented at the 11th European Wave and Tidal Energy Conference, Nantes, France.
6 Copping, A., M. Grear, R. Jepsen, C. Chartrand, and A. Gorton. 2017. Understanding the potential risk to marine mammals from collision with tidal turbines. International Journal of Marine Energy 19 (2017) 110–123

7 Langhamer, O.; Wilhelmsson, D. (2009). Colonisation of Fish and Crabs of Wave Energy Foundations and the Effects of Manufactured Holes - A Field Experiment. Marine Environmental Research, 68, 151-157. energy-foundations-and-effects-manufactured-holes
8 Langhamer, O.; Wilhelmsson, D.; Engstrom, J. (2009). Artificial Reef Effect and Fouling Impacts on Offshore Wave Power Foundations and Buoys - A Pilot Study. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science, 82(2), 426-432.
9 Kramer, S.; Hamilton, C.; Spencer, G.; Ogston, H. (2015). Evaluating the Potential for Marine and Hydrokinetic Devices to Act as Artificial Reefs or Fish Aggregating Devices, Based on Analysis of Surrogates in Tropical, Subtropical, and Temperate U.S. West Coast and Hawaiian Coastal Waters. Report by H.T. Harvey & Associates. pp 90.
10 Polagye, B., P. Murphy, L.Vega, and P. Cross. 2017. Acoustic characteristics of two point‐absorbing wave energy converters. Paper presented at 2017 Marine Energy Technology Symposium, Washington D.C.