Social Responsibility and Sustainability

The TROPOS Project

Researchers at the Institute for Energy Systems in the School of Engineering participated in the TROPOS project, a European collaborative project to develop a floating multi-use platform system able to generate renewable energy alongside commerical uses, such as fish farming.

David Ingram was interviewed by Aida De Heras Olivares and James Tooze, MSc in Science Communication students on placement with the Department for Social Responsibility & Sustainability.
Read their blog about carrying out research for Action for the Climate.

Research into renewables

According to David Ingram, Professor of Computational Fluid Dynamics at the University of Edinburgh, fossil fuels like coal and natural gas are too valuable to be burnt for energy production. This is why his research, based at the Institute for Energy Systems - the largest multidisciplinary energy research institute in Europe - focuses on renewable energy production. He speaks to us about his participation in TROPOS, a European project focused on the design of marine floating platforms that combine different ways to produce and use energy.

‘TROPOS aims to investigate how to make more and better economic use of the European marine environment. Although there is a lot of resource that could be used, the machinery needed [for renewable energy production] is phenomenally expensive and, if we are to make this energy cost-effective then we ought to try to put together a combined sea platform to generate energy and use it for something else other than just exporting it. We wanted to answer questions like ‘Can we take a floating wind system and include fish farming in it?’, or ‘could we use the platform for floating transshipment of goods from large ocean gait vessels to smaller coastal vessels?’’

The production of renewable energies that are safe, secure and sustainable for the market and for the people, along with the offset of carbon emissions, are obvious drives for the development of projects like TROPOS that obviously relate to the climate change agenda.

‘We also looked at something else (...) whether instead of generating electricity with those machines you could use them for something else. One of the critical uses that was identified was actually pumping water ashore and pressurising this water as you pump it to shore. That may not seem like a very important job. (...) but it saves a lot of energy if you are going to put that water through a desalination plant. In the Canary Islands more than half of the drinking water comes from desalinated sea water. All of the energy from that comes from burning diesel. If you want to make a huge difference somewhere like the Canary Islands in terms of the environmental footprint, you need to find a renewable energy way of desalinating seawater. There are some things that you can’t change, but if you can pressurise water and pump it to shore using renewable energy then you can actually probably take 40-50% off the energy cost of producing drinking water.’

Powering communities

However, the importance behind projects like TROPOS lies not only in their environmental impact, but also on their contribution to the economy and the community.

‘Much of the European coastal settlements are impoverished. Fishing is dying out because of overfishing. The energy communities remain in concentrated areas such as the North Sea. There is a real driver to increase the economic productivity of these coastal communities, and marine energy can be a very good way to counter these issues. If you can put in a tidal energy farm on a site used for floating wind turbines, this needs people with local knowledge, skills and experience, and it also uses small vessels to provide servicing. It creates jobs in the local community. Putting together multi-use platforms that hybridise, for example, fish farming and energy generation, means you can use one area of sea for two productive uses. This is particularly important in Europe, where sea areas are particularly constrained. But if you start bringing things together and putting them in the same place, then you can improve productivity and reduce the area over which the environmental consequence of the deployment might happen.’

The role of the University of Edinburgh in this project builds on a previous European project called MARINA platform, which developed an atlas identifying locations to deploy floating wind systems and floating wind and wave systems. Professor Ingram’s job - along with another researchers - was to use this geographical information to locate sites suitable for multi-use platforms and then explore which combination of uses might be cost-effective.

Alongside this line of research, Henry Jeffrey and his team worked on developing the supporting policies and measures needed to generate a market for the technology.

‘At the end of the day, we came up with some ideas that are workable. The hybrid floating wind turbine system with a fish cage in it is something which we will see’

Collaborative approach

As for the obstacles encountered, apart from the organisational efforts rooting from the European wide nature of the project, the open-minded mentality with which Professor Ingram and his team joined TROPOS proved to be both a blessing and a curse.

‘We started off by saying we wanted to be technology agnostic. We didn’t want to believe in any particular technology and we wanted to keep an open mind and look at all sorts of options in a fair way, so there were no preconceptions brought to the table. But it was a huge rod for our own back. (...) You have to think about what is worth looking at and what isn’t. It took us a long time to look at the constraints and all the things that may influence how the design of a platform could be, before we got to the situation that we actually had a design we could start looking at asking ‘Does this make sense?’’

‘On the whole it was a good project to be involved in and we were very successful. (...) It’s the only European project I have been in where no deliverables have been late, which is a huge achievement for a European project.’

Next steps

So what happened after TROPOS? Subsequent to this project, another European project called Marinet used a platform consisting of a triangular wind floating turbine with a fishing net and which was one of the outcomes of TROPOS. The prototype was tested in the UoE, both at the curved wave facility and at FloWave - a huge water tank capable of simulating deep sea currents to a 1:20 scale.

However, even after the end of the project there is still a lot more to be done until these platforms can be made operational. Different scale models are currently being built and tested in tanks, and within the next three to four years larger demonstrators will be tested in the sea.

‘...we are now seeing machines of 3-4MW being built. The platforms in this project would be 10MW platforms generating electricity.’

Professor Ingram considers the participation in a project of this calibre to be very beneficial in terms of future research pathways. TROPOS pushed forward existing resource mapping and understanding and was a way of establishing an international network with strong links that might result in future research collaborations.

‘A lot of people take the view that if you just take a renewable energy device and put it in the sea, you will get power. One of the things that is very important is to say, where do we put it? Then you consider do we not only put it somewhere we can produce energy, but we can generate energy for the lowest possible price. That pricing is a very complicated thing to do, as it depends on how far the machine from the port you took it from to install it, how far is it from somewhere you can service it, how far is it to get an electrical connection to the shore, all of these things need to be taken into consideration.’

‘By working in a project like TROPOS with all sorts of people, from marine biologists to ecologists, planning people to naval architects, you get a much better understanding of what the constraints are on that which improves our capability in that area. Working in a project like this, that asks many more questions than it answers at the end of the project, is a really, really important thing for a research intensive university to do. Because those unanswered questions are tomorrow’s research projects.’