Stormy shores: Predicting and protecting the UK’s coastal energy infrastructure

Nothing ever last forever, and with change comes danger. Take the UK’s coastline, one of the longest in the world compared to country size, where crucial parts of Britain’s energy infrastructure reside relatively close to coastal populations, degrading cliffs and rising sea levels. In the face of climate change, policies and decisions made now will influence how the country generates and distributes its energy for decades to come.

The ARCoES (Adaptation and Resilience of Coastal Energy Supply) project looks to frame the challenges facing coastal energy production from sea level rise and storms, says research leader Professor Andy Plater from the University of Liverpool. “The infrastructure that we have in coastal zones for energy generation and distribution will come under increasing threat, and policy makers and planners need to be best informed,” he says.

Plater makes it clear that ARCoES – a multidisciplinary team of researchers and industry specialists with expertise in everything from environmental modelling to nuclear energy as well as regulation and management -- are in the business of presenting the best possible data to planners, who in turn can implement interventions.

Informing decision making

For example, say defences need to be improved as the sea encroaches on a power station, data from sophisticated models such as X-Beach can simulate changes to the coastline and appropriate interventions compared. Computer models work for estuaries, gravel and sandy beaches, dunes, and cliffs made up of both hard and soft rock, incorporating climate projections to the 2020s, 2050s, 2080s and beyond. The models feed into a Decision Support Tool (DST) which visualises future flooding and aids decision-making by relevant stakeholders and communities.

Rather than simply addressing the impacts of future sea level rise by raising concrete and steel defences, ARCoES is exploring interventions that work with natural processes. For example, beach widening with imported sand can extend beach life for up to 20 years, to defend homes and a major gas terminal that handles one third of the UK’s supply. In some areas, managed flooding and natural reshaping of the coastline could be the desired outcome, such as the £28M Environment Agency project in Medmerry, West Sussex.

“Our work gives operators a timeline for when decisions need to be made, and a plan to get resources in place for when they are needed,” says Plater. And there are important decisions on the horizon, such as managing the wetlands adjacent to the Sizewell Nuclear Power plant. How, for example, will future changes in the coastline react to storm surges, the peak levels of energy and water that are violently delivered by storms, and predicted to increase in power and frequency.

Working in Partnership

The Liverpool-led ARCoES decision-support work is complimented by partnerships with both big and small companies. At one end, the research has benefitted greatly from collaboration with the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) and EDF NNB. At the other a local SME called Marlan Maritime Technologies has pioneered new technology that uses marine radar to map beaches on a tide-by-tide basis -- previously aerial surveys could be months or years apart. Research collaboration of this breadth provides the means to add fine detail and action recommendations to proposed interventions, generating enhanced practical impacts from sound theoretical work.