How geotechnical solutions can support renewable energy sources

Stratec Ltd has over 40 years’ experience in supplying products and services to the Civil and Environmental Engineering and Construction industries.

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The energy industry has changed, with a growing reliance on and demand for ‘green’ energy.

Renewable energy now makes up more than 40% of the UK’s power supply, as government and businesses work towards global carbon reduction targets and consumers call for environmentally sound products and services.

To keep up with demand, planners and developers must develop a stable, sustainable infrastructure network, both to maintain energy supply and gradually shift from fossil fuel-led to renewable-led.

Solutions to support green energy infrastructure

Geotechnical solutions can support developers to deliver secure, sustainable sites for renewable energy generation and transfer, while also delivering additional, localised environmental protection.

The UK’s primary renewable sources, supporting the network with limited negative environmental impact, are:

  • solar cells – using sunlight to generate electricity
  • bioenergy – using biomass of organic materials to produce heat, fuel or electricity;
  • onshore or offshore wind farms – harnessing wind energy to generate electricity.

Of these, wind power leads the way, producing up to 30% of our energy.

Favoured as the most ‘green’, or sustainable, renewable energy source, wind power creates the lowest (relative) greenhouse gas emissions and requires the lowest water consumption. While wind farms surround the UK in coastal waters, onshore wind farms produce more of our energy and are growing in usage. In Scotland alone, new wind farms produce 5,000MW of energy.

To generate the maximum amount of energy, they are often developed in remote areas. The challenges these locations throw up for developers can be overcome with geotechnical product solutions.

Site and foundation work on a wind farm can account for between 10-25% of total system cost, making initial site investigations a crucial part to get right in design and procurement planning. While developing renewable energy sources will be seen as inherently ‘good’, the planning and environmental protection considerations which go into their development should be no less thorough than any other construction project. There will still be risks of disruption, pollution or habitat loss.

The disruptive groundworks required to develop these vital resources can be mitigated with the right understanding and solutions, including:

Durable access routes

For wind farms being developed in remote locations, durable access roads must be developed. Using the right reinforcements to either displace heavy loads or reinforce the ground will enable both heavy vehicles and machinery travelling to and from site during development works and maintenance vehicles visiting on completion.

Constructing sustainable access routes will also protect the underground utilities vital to transferring or even storing energy from the turbines, sustaining our energy supply no matter the weather conditions.

 

figure 1 – access road formation

 

Stable surrounding ground

For onshore farms located in hilly or uneven terrain, stable slopes or embankments must be assured, reducing the risk of erosion during development works and protecting natural habitats and wildlife in the long-term. Using reinforcements to protect excavations for foundations or managing drainage to divert or capture water around works will support construction works to be completed safely in locations where weather conditions are adverse.

Embankment or slope stabilization can also be an opportunity to reseed or establish vegetation in areas disrupted during development works, allowing biodiversity and wildlife to continue to flourish. Creating attractive areas, appealing to both people and wildlife, will also help to mitigate any concerns around how wind farms can obstruct landscapes or threaten birds.

Reduced environmental impact

For any type of new development, a wide range of geotechnical solutions are available to ensure environmental protection. Dust control measures will ensure dust, which can be harmful to both workers and wildlife, is limited. And silt control measures will prevent silt, soil or sediment, disturbed during works, does not migrate to watercourses, cause pollution or harm biodiversity.

To meet global carbon reduction targets and increase the UK’s capacity for renewable energy production, sustainable infrastructure is essential. Understanding and applying geotechnical solutions to these challenges will support this.

Whatever the project type, location or requirements, geotechnical solutions can support and deliver environmental protection, preventing erosion, pollution or slippages, and ensure on-time, on-budget and safe programme delivery.