Development in the renewable energy sector often faces two major non-technical obstacles: approval for the creation of offshore constructions, such as windfarms and tidal or wave projects, and evaluation of the impacts of such installations on the surrounding environment. For the latter, costly and time-consuming surveys for assessing these effects are needed, even in lower risk cases which use more benign technologies in areas of lower environmental sensitivity.
The RiCORE (Risk Based Consenting for Offshore Renewable Energy Projects) project, funded by the EU's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, was set up to reduce timescales and costs by bringing in a risk-based approach to permitting procedures. This risk-based methodology aimed to inform decision making through an understanding of the scientific uncertainties and how likely and how large the impacts of marine renewables would be. Coming to its conclusion in June last year after an 18-month run, RiCORE examined the use of risk profiles, so that scientists and regulators could reduce the amount of survey data required under licensing procedures, with a focus on new technologies being deployed at small scales.
RiCORE was inspired by the work of ICES Working Group on Marine Renewable Energy (WGMRE), which collates national reports on the status of marine renewable energy development and on the development of decision management tools used for planning and regulation. The group's members work alongside other ICES expert groups, such as the Working Group on Marine Benthal and Renewable Energy Developments (WGMBRED), to report on the state of the science associated with improving our knowledge of the effects of these renewables on specific ecosystem components.
Several members of WGMRE were involved in the project, which comprised teams from Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France and Scotland. This multinational aspect was important in light of another of RiCORE's goals: building the case for standardization of monitoring environmental effects once commercial scale installations are deployed across EU Member States. The current lack of consistency was one of the key findings of the project.
Another concept promoted by the project was that of adaptive management: a strategic form of 'learning by doing', where adaption is based on what is learned. With such an approach, the inherent scientific uncertainties associated with human activities exploiting natural resources are not treated as a barrier to development but as an opportunity for research that will improve future decision making.
An example is the risk-based approach to consenting known as 'Survey-Deploy-Monitor' (SDM). Developed by Marine Scotland, SDM is a policy designed for novel wave and tidal technologies. Combining environmental and technological risk information with project scale, the approach distinguishes between two types of projects: those where the risks are sufficiently low to allow decision making based on only one-year of wildlife survey and those where a greater level of site characterization is needed. Expanding SDM guidance to include all offshore technologies was one of the primary objectives of RiCORE.
Finlay Bennet, Chair of WGMRE and a member of the RiCORE team working for Marine Scotland Science explained how the project's efforts will help address industry challenges.
"Regulators expect to become better informed about the impacts from marine renewables as nations increasingly undertake these activities. Ensuring our levels of understanding keep pace with our levels of ambition for both the scale of deployment and protection of the environment are the goals. Marine scientists know only too well the challenges associated with detecting change, with confidence, especially in the context of high levels of natural variation. This project shows how risk-based approaches ultimately provide the only means of meeting the scientific challenges associated with achieving the goals."
Also addressed was the legal framework in place in the partner Member States to ensure the framework developed was applicable for roll-out across these states as well as further afield. Risk averse policies associated with over-reliance on the precautionary principle were identified as a potential barrier to deployment that does not promote learning by doing. The practices, methodologies, and implementation of pre-consent surveys were also considered, as well as post-consent and post-deployment monitoring in order to allow a feedback loop to ensure improved decision making is associated with increased deployment. The project achieved these aims by engaging with stakeholders – including the regulators, industry and environmental impact assessment (EIA) practitioners – through a series of workshops and developing their outcomes into guidance.