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Renewable – and ecologically sustainable?

Over the years, Jan Sundbergs work came to focus on the division´smarine activities, particularly the large wave power projects in Lysekil and Sotenäs on the west coast.

Sweden must phase out fossil energy sources – this is the general consensus. But opinions differ on what kinds of energy production society should invest in. “We will need a lot of renewable energy, which unfortunately will also have an environmental cost,” says Professor Jan Sundberg at the Department of Engineering Sciences.

The need for energy that emits less carbon dioxide and limits the burden on the environment is growing the world over. But how ecologically sustainable are today’s renewable energy sources? And is it possible to find a minimum common acceptance level for potential negative side effects?

According to Jan Sundberg, the answers are to be sought in interdisciplinarity. He works at the Ångström Laboratory’s Division of Electricity, at the Centre for Renewable Electric Energy Conversion to be precise. With roots as an ecologist, he conducts research focused on nature and environmental issues in renewable energy production.

“I was one of the few biologists and ecologists who began looking more closely at the impact of renewable energy in the 1990s. At that time, the main issue was wind power, and one of the questions I worked on was assessing the environmental impact in areas that applied for permits for wind power.”

Unit for renewable energy caught his interest

At the beginning of the 2000s, his interest was caught by a newly established division for renewable energy extraction at the Ångström Laboratory at Uppsala University. Shortly after, he began to work with Mats Leijon, inventor and developer of revolutionary technical solutions for energy conversion.

“I was interested in the subject as such, and also thought new technology offered more promising solutions than conventional technology,” says Sundberg.

Over the years, his work came to focus on the division’s marine activities, particularly the large wave power projects in Lysekil and Sotenäs on the west coast. But he has also worked on risk minimisation in vertical axis wind turbine technology, another area of research at the Centre for Renewable Electric Energy Conversion. There, he has been responsible for contacts with authorities concerning permits and follow-up. He has also converted project evaluations into research programmes for doctoral students.

“We have a lot of wind power on the way, but the follow-ups conducted have their shortcomings. We know very little about the future impact of wind farms, which are growing in size and number – regionally, nationally and globally.”

Human impact on nature

Jan Sundberg points to innumerable stacks of paper on his desk, containing articles. All of them are part of the same meta-study on the evaluation of renewable energy from a nature conservation perspective.

Though in terms of impacts on nature and the environment, humankind is already causing considerable such impacts through forestry, agriculture, construction of cities and similar land use, Sundberg points out.

“You have to have perspective. Besides, every major energy transition will give rise to similar discussions and criticism. When wave and tidal power are as big, there will be problems associated with them. This phenomenon is often called cumulative impact, meaning effects accumulate gradually as new projects and facilities emerge.”

In Lysekil researchers are studying how fish and marine mammals are affected by the wave power equipment. Photo: Jan Sundberg

Positive contact with local residents

The key is communication – to inform and conduct a dialogue with the local community. Prior to the wave power projects, Sundberg and his colleagues held many information meetings in the small towns on the west coast, which resulted in positive contact with local residents.

The Sotenäs project led to the establishment of the company Seabased, a partly commercial enterprise, while the Lysekil project is a pure research facility. There, his two doctoral students, a marine biologist and an oceanographer, are currently studying how fish and marine mammals, such as the harbour seal and porpoise, are affected by the wave power equipment.

“The advantage of wave power is that there are no moving parts, no rotating turbines that can cause damage. It’s essentially some kind of construction that either floats, lies in the water or, like ours, lies on the bottom with a buoy on the surface,” says Sundberg.

Observations of the status of Norway lobster

The doctoral students have also studied the status of Norway lobster in the wave power park in Sotenäs, where they have made some interesting observations.

“It turns out that once you build a park where fishing is not possible, the biomass can increase. The Norway lobsters in Sotenäs are not fished out when they are small. Without fishing, the stocks also become denser. When they become too numerous in the park, the lobsters leave the area and can be caught. So the marine activities have positive effects as well.”

However, it will probably take time to arrive at more exact definitions and delimitations on which parties can base agreements on the use of renewable energy sources.

“We need vastly more research and development. Not just in technology, but also in the natural and social sciences, because that’s where there is knowledge about the best way to adapt renewable energy to the social and environmental context,” says Sundberg.

1 June 2018