Orkney hosts major marine renewable energy conference with the University of the Highlands and Islands and Heriot-Watt University



EMEC deploys a tidal device in Orkney
A device used to measure tidal currents being deployed at EMEC’s tidal test site in Orkney. Photo Colin Keldie/EMEC

Marine scientists from around the world are gathering in Orkney this week for a five-day international conference about marine renewable energy and the environment.

The event is co-hosted by University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) and Heriot-Watt University and explores how marine renewable energy such as offshore wind and tidal energy interacts with marine wildlife, communities and the environment.

More than 100 delegates from destinations including the United States, the UK and Europe have signed up to join the event, which is called the Environmental Interactions of Marine Renewables (EIMR) International Conference 2024.

We need to find a balance between the ecosystem effects of marine renewable energy developments and reducing carbon-emissions.

Dr Karen Alexander, Heriot-Watt University

Conference co-chair Dr Karen Alexander is an Assistant Professor at Heriot-Watt University’s School of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure and Society and is a marine social scientist – a scientist who specialises in researching human interactions with the marine environment.

She said: “The aim of this conference is to bring together marine renewable experts from around the world to present latest findings in this space and to facilitate new ideas and directions.”

Rapid growth in the renewable energy sector inevitably brings areas of conflict, Dr Alexander added. For example, concerns about the potential impact of growth on communities and the environment. That’s why the theme of the EIMR conference is ‘Balance.’

“We need to find a balance between the ecosystem effects of marine renewable energy developments and reducing carbon-emissions,” Dr Alexander said. “We also need to find a balance between the societal impacts of renewable energy and economic growth – and between national goals to cut emissions – while making sure our coastal communities are resilient.”

Also co-chairing the conference is Joe Onoufriou, a Senior Marine Mammal Scientist at Marine Scotland, part of the Scottish Government responsible for managing Scotland’s seas.

He said: “To cut carbon emissions and tackle climate change, we need to generate renewable energy from the sea in ways that also support and benefit the environment and communities.

“There’s a wealth of expert science behind this, and it’s vital that we collaborate and share this knowledge across different disciplines, industries and geographies. Our conference in Orkney provides that platform.”

On behalf of UHI, Professor Ben Wilson, chair of the EIMR 2024 Scientific Advisory Committee, added:  "The offshore renewables market is global, yet the actual infrastructure has the potential for major consequences for the local people and wildlife where it is placed. This conference series was born in 2012 in recognition that it is important that local issues are not missed as energy supplies are decarbonised.

“Having been involved in this conference series since the start, I am now delighted that Karen and Joe are once again bringing this global community to the highlands and islands of Scotland to share the latest research results on best-practice and so to help make offshore renewable energy truly sustainable.” 

Research areas to be discussed at the event include how to create value for communities that interact with marine renewable sites and how developments such as offshore wind farms can affect marine wildlife. Delegates will also discuss research around the risks of animals colliding with renewable infrastructure such as wind turbine blades and how to address this. Other topics include how climate change can affect the ecosystems around marine energy sites.

Keynote speakers at the event include Kristopher Leask, an elected councillor at Orkney Islands Council and the policy manager for renewable energy charity Community Energy Scotland; Brian Polagye, an expert on marine renewable energy systems at the University of Washington in the United States and Alexander Gilliland, an ecosystem specialist at the Scottish Government’s Offshore Wind Directorate.

Also delivering keynote speeches are Neil Kermode, Managing Director of the Orkney-based European Marine Energy Centre, the world’s leading test facility for wave and tidal energy converters and Professor Richard A. Williams, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University.

The Environmental Interactions of Marine Renewables Conference takes place in-person and online from 15-19 April 2024 at the Pickaquoy Centre (locally known as ‘the Picky’) in Kirkwall, Orkney, Scotland.


Victoria Masterson