Q&A: Dr Mark Coughlan Talks Renewable Energy

Dr Mark Coughlan has a PhD in marine geoscience with extensive experience in offshore surveying. He is a Research Fellow in the iCRAG Geohazards and Geoengineering Research Challenge. His research focuses on changes in the seabed over different timescales and the sustainable use of the seabed to address climate change issues. Today we ask Mark a few questions on his work in geoscience, renewable energy and offshore wind.

Mark, you’ve a PhD in marine geoscience. How did you become interested in geology?

I had always been interested in physical geography at school and had a teacher who made me acutely aware of environmental issues including climate change. Then in transition year I read Bill Bryson’s book ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’. It really introduced me to geology as a discipline that fundamentally explains how our planet works and I was hooked, so at the UCC open day I checked it out, met some inspiring lecturers and decided to give it a go. It was either that or history and politics, I’m happy with my choice!

What are you currently working on?

At the moment I’m based at the SFI Centre for Research in Applied Geosciences (iCRAG) where I’m working on different projects that help us to understand how the seabed has changed over different timescales and the implications of this for building offshore wind. I spend a lot of time on boats collecting data to look at how past glaciers, nearly 25,000 years ago, affected the Irish Sea by eroding and depositing different features that we now want to construct turbines on, and then at present how currents move sediment on the seafloor and how this might impact these turbines in the future.

How important a role does wind play in our future renewable energy requirements? 

It’s fundamental. It’s probably our greatest natural resource in generating renewable energy seeing as we don’t have the resources to exploit the likes of geothermal or solar energy at scale, nor do we have the technologies just yet to generate significant amounts of renewable energy from wave or tidal resources. Wind, however, we have plenty of and the scalable technologies to capture that resource and generate renewable electricity at a cost that isn’t that prohibitive.

Does Ireland have good potential for offshore wind energy generation?

Absolutely. We have the wind speeds offshore, and a vast marine area that is roughly 10 times the size of our land mass. The INFOMAR programme has done a wonderful job in mapping this area so we have a really good understanding of the seabed for locating sites.  The UK has shown us the way to do it right, we really just have to follow and apply their learnings! 

Do offshore wind farms affect marine life?

Invariably yes in the same way that any construction project affects the local environment. Offshore wind farms will go through a vigorous environmental impact assessment phase before any construction starts to ensure that the effects are minimal or even negligible.  Over the last number of years there’s been a undertaking in the research side to see if we can make offshore windfarm sites more compatible with sustainable marine ecosystems, such as using windfarm sites as “no-fish” zones to promote fishstock regeneration, and foundations themselves as nurseries for at risk species. In the future, the development of floating wind farm technology will likely decrease this impact on marine life further as the turbines are tethered to the seabed rather than piled. 

Ireland currently has 1 offshore wind project. When can we expect more to be finalised?

The Irish state has the ambition to build 5,000 megawatts (MW) of offshore wind by 2030. To put that in context, 1 megawatt is enough to power about 750 homes.  Ireland’s only current offshore windfarm, Arklow Bank, was just 25 MW when it was constructed in 2004 so we’ve a long way to go! In that time since 2004, the cost of offshore wind has come down dramatically as the turbines have gotten bigger and better.  To emphasise this, the UK  to date has built about 10,400 MW of offshore wind, it took 11 years to build the first 2,000 MW and just 18 months to build their last 2,000 MW.  In the coming months the Irish state will be holding competitive auctions for offshore wind projects to win contracts so we can expect new projects to be finalised in the next 2-3 years all going well. 

Where can we learn more?

You can follow me on Twitter (@DrMarkyC) I post all my latest research there. I recently did a short documentary with the BBC on some of my work using shipwrecks to inform site selection for offshore wind (https://www.bbc.com/storyworks/unlocking-science/what-do-irelands-shipwrecks-have-to-do-with-renewable-energy). I’ve also done a number some online talks and podcasts about offshore wind and my research:

Thanks so much to Mark for his time. 
We hope this interview has given you a further insight into the capacity for positive change in the energy market in Ireland. You can read more Sustainable Living Tips on our blog and catch up on previous Q&A’s on topics including Veganuary,  Gardening and Second Hand Shopping.
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