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ADV BIZ: Research & innovation Marine energy solutions for off-grid communities and earthquake warning systems

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The University of Victoria is an acknowledged leader in the study of ocean science and technology, pictured here is UVic mechanical engineer and PRIMED project lead Brad Buckham with a wave energy measurement buoy.


The University of Victoria is an acknowledged leader in the study of ocean science and technology, thanks in part to its focus on ocean observing systems, ocean engineering, and the development of marine energy systems. Its researchers are working with a range of partners and user groups on the way to developing new technologies designed not just to better understand the changing ocean and its physical processes and ecosystems, but to maximize social and economic benefits through policy application, public safety planning and commercialization. Two of many projects underway illustrate some of the ways this is happening.

The end of uncertainty

Canada's off-the-grid communities, the majority of which are Indigenous, are forced to rely on diesel-fuelled electrical generation, which is dirty, expensive and mechanically problematic. In British Columbia alone, which is awash in renewable hydroelectric energy, there are as many as 53 of these energy-challenged communities. The irony is that many of them do have a local renewable option available to them in the form of marine energy, including wind, wave and tidal. What's holding them back from exploiting it is the lack of data needed to assess the resource and better understand how it can be harnessed and synchronized with local demand. "You can't just ask these communities to invest in new technologies without a full understanding of the costs and benefits," says Brad Buckham, a mechanical engineer at the University of Victoria. "It can be an expensive and disappointing gamble."

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However, the solution to the uncertainty problem is at hand thanks to the Pacific Regional Institute for Marine Energy Discovery (PRIMED) project led by Dr. Buckham. Using extensive wind, wave and tidal data that Dr. Buckham and the multi-partner West Coast Wave Initiative (WCWI) have been gathering at UVic over the past eight years and consolidating it with new data gathered by sensors on the new Canadian Pacific Robotic Ocean Observing Facility (C-PROOF), another UVic initiative, PRIMED will make it possible to determine through simulation what the true costs and benefits of marine energy are prior to investment. "Essentially we'll be able to eliminate the risks and uncertainty that currently plague the marine energy industry," says Dr. Buckham. "We'll strip them away so communities can see what the true benefits and costs are, and the technology companies can see what they need to do to make it work." He adds that by eliminating the uncertainty, PRIMED can help build trust between communities and technology developers hoping to initiate first-of-a-kind energy projects, here and everywhere. "This model could be exported worldwide," he says.

Getting a bead on the Big One

Forewarned is forearmed, and when it comes to earthquakes and the resulting tsunamis, the sooner we know they're coming the better. The forewarning part is getting a big boost thanks to the laying down of a network of deep-sea GPS sensor stations on the Cascadia subduction zone by Ocean Networks Canada (ONC), another UVic initiative. According to ONC president and CEO Kate Moran, the sensors will monitor and measure the "slow-slip" tectonic movement of the Juan de Fuca plate, which is currently underneath the North American plate off the coast of Vancouver Island. These sophisticated seafloor GPS stations – the first of their kind to work underwater – will communicate acoustically with an autonomous Wave Glider surface vehicle, continuously collecting and transmitting information in real time to ONC's Oceans 2.0 data management system.

"The sensors won't be able to predict earthquakes," says Dr. Moran, "but they are co-located with other sensors on the seafloor and, combined with land-based systems, they'll serve as part of an early warning system for one that is happening."  In collaboration with public education programs, the extra time the system provides before the ground starts shaking makes it possible to take more effective defensive measures. "You can do a lot in a few seconds," says Dr. Moran. "Get elevators to the ground floor, stop surgery, open fire hall doors, shut off gas valves."

She adds that the project serves as a good example of the way in which academic research in this and other areas of ocean science at UVic can not only find practical application but also serve the public good. "The kind of information we're getting is important for research purposes," she says. "But it also has a direct benefit to the community in terms of its early warning potential."

C-PROOF: New autonomous devices

Climate change is causing dramatic shifts in the world's oceans, reducing oxygen levels while increasing water temperature and acidity. To better understand the phenomenon and its consequences, UVic is launching the Canadian Pacific Robotic Ocean Observing Platform (C-PROOF), which uses autonomous underwater gliders and floats to explore and monitor the ocean using sensors capable of tracking life, quantifying turbulence and measuring ocean nutrients. According to UVic physical oceanographer and project lead Jody Klymak, the real-time data that C-PROOF provides can be used in many ways. "Changing ocean temperatures have an impact on many things, including fisheries and the weather," he says. "This data will make it possible to make more informed decisions in both economic and public policy terms." He adds that it will also be shared with a wide range of stakeholders, both domestically and internationally.

This content was produced by Randall Anthony Communications, in partnership with The Globe and Mail's advertising department. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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