Water Resources Engineering (WRE) connects engineering hydrology and hydraulics with global, economic, environmental, and societal issues. Our student Sean Coyne makes this connection here…

The news article entitled, “Island channel could power about half of Scotland, studies show” was reported by the University of Edinburgh in a public release on January 19, 2014. The news relates to the WRE domain of hydrology and the specific issue of the exploitation of renewable tidal energy. In summary, this news article reports on the recent development of studies that have been done in the Pentland Firth, an island channel between North Scotland and Orkney. Researchers from the University of Oxford and the University of Edinburgh have recently concluded a very detailed study of how tidal power could be generated by turbines strategically place in the island channel. These studies conclude that an estimated 1.9 gigawatts (GW) could be available for harnessing out of a potential 4.2 GW. This translates to about 16,000 GWh. The Pentland Firth is a great candidate for such a project as it has some of the fastest tidal currents in the British Isles. Based on my engineering education my informed opinion is the WRE facts in the news article are probably accurate due to the force of water flow as the cross sectional area changes, noted by Wurbs and James (2002). However without the raw data and calculation I can’t quite confirm the reliability of the information. Thinking critically about this report, the University of Edinburgh should have been more transparent with the information they were reporting on. Their reports cites the detailed study and calculations done by engineers but doesn’t supply the raw data. There could possibly be some political influence with this report.

A particularly relevant quote by Professor Guy Houlsby of the Department of Engineering Science, University of Oxford, was that “The UK enjoys potentially some of the best tidal resources worldwide, and if we exploit them wisely they could make an important contribution to our energy supply. These studies should move us closer towards the successful exploitation of the tides”

Obviously implementing all these turbines in the channel can be potentially harmful to the balance of the ecosystem which is why the UK Crown estate will be overseeing development and have identified areas to minimize impacts on sea life and shipping trade. A firm called Atlantis Resources will be developing and constructing the turbines. Widely known as the Saudi Arabia of marine renewable energy, Scotland’s goal is to generate 100 percent of its power from renewable resources by the year 2020.

Water resources engineering influences global, economic, environmental and societal context areas because it is an interdisciplinary discipline that manages hydrologic and hydraulic systems at many scales to efficiently deliver services for many users. I have identified the broader WRE context areas of society and economics are impacted by this hydrologic hydroelectric energy exploitation as well as hydrologic ecosystem management. These broader context areas are defined as follows: the societal context typically relates to human relationships, such as those conflicts between the educated engineers and the wildlife conservationists worried about ecosystem degradation in the Pentland Firth. Based on the article, recently developed studies have allowed engineers to analyze the true hydroelectric energy consumption potential in the channel and have developed a way to work with other organizations to minimize ecosystem and sea trade interruption. In 2010, Oceanographer Hans van Haren (2010) reported in an article that tidal energy consumption isn’t worth the marine ecosystem damage due to the lack of potential energy and proper study of the turbine and tide flow interaction. Van Haren (2010) says, “Tides are indispensable for life in shallow seas. Without them, ocean life would come to a halt. Extraction of their energy may seem attractive, but in reality there is very little tidal energy to be had and what there is comes at high ecological cost. We should save the tides.” This article is prior to the recent study that has been done and cites incorrect tide speeds that have now been updated by the engineers at the Universities of Edinburgh and Oxford. He also notes the necessity of turbulent flow to nutrient cycles that will be influenced heavily depleted by tidal turbine development. It would be interesting to have an updated article on his opinion on the recent research developments.

Aerial Satellite photo showing the Pentland Firth as well as flow direction.

Aerial Satellite photo showing the Pentland Firth as well as flow direction.

Tidal Turbine design concept by Atlantis Resources, Ltd.

Tidal Turbine design concept by Atlantis Resources, Ltd.


University of Edinburgh. Island Channel Could Power about Half of Scotland, Studies Show. EurekaAlert. AAS Science Society, 19 Jan. 214. Web. 22 Jan. 2014.

Van Haren, Hans. “Tidal Power? No Thanks.” New Scientist 206.20754 (2010): 20-21. Science Direct. Web. 24 Jan. 2014.

Wurbs, R.A., James, W.P. Water Resources Engineering. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2002.