How supercomputing can boost renewable energy projects

Dr Simon Neill with PhD student Alice Goward Brown

Supercomputing is being used to help researchers discover the most efficient locations for developing the renewable energy hubs of tomorrow.

In a bid to find the most energy-efficient positions to build new tidal energy hubs, supercomputing technology can help examine the ways in which we can generate electricity from the oceans, harnessing the power of wave and tidal energy.

Renewable energy sources will reduce our dependence on fossil fuel gas and oil reserves, and consequently lower the amount of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere.

The UK Government has announced its aims to meet a 15% renewable energy target by 2020, and the Welsh Government is aiming to capture at least 10% of the potential tidal stream and wave energy off the Welsh coastline by 2025. Supercomputing is already playing an integral part in helping to make these goals a reality.

So, exactly what is supercomputing and how can it enhance renewable energy projects?

If you have ever shopped in Asda, watched a TV weather forecast or enjoyed the latest Dreamworks studio animation at the cinema, then you have unknowingly enjoyed the power of supercomputing technology. 

Compared to the types of computers most of us are used to, supercomputers are beyond anything you can imagine in terms of processing power and capacity, capable of performing complex and high-volume calculations at top speeds. First introduced in the 1960s, today they have evolved into substantial machines running off tens of thousands of processors, and are used for highly calculation-intensive tasks such as weather forecasting.

Supercomputers have many applications that are invaluable to business and academics, including advanced modelling and simulation, performing complex calculations and rendering high-definition 3D graphics.

How can supercomputing help to develop the renewable energy hubs of tomorrow?

Supercomputing is currently being used by Bangor University’s School of Ocean Sciences in conjunction with the Xodus Group, to carry out detailed modeling, to predict the long-term impact of site choice for tidal power generation systems. 

Reports have suggested that estuary barrages and tidal streams, a more reliable source of renewable energy than wind, could provide more than 20% of the UK’s demand for electricity.

Xodus and a group of University researchers, led by Dr Simon Neill, are specifically exploring the Welsh tidal stream - one of the best tidal energy resources in the world. Wales is blessed with the tidal range of the Severn Estuary and the strong currents flowing around the coast of Anglesey. 

Thanks to the supercomputing technology available through High Performance Computing (HPC) Wales, using globally available bathymetry datasets and boundary forcings, Dr Neill can now set up and run a model of any region of the world in just a few hours. Whilst physically observing these locations is still important, computer simulations can reduce the time and cost of modelling regions, and open university researchers up to investigating more than one location at a time.

Supercomputing means researchers can now take regions across the world, whether it’s an estuary in Africa or the global oceans, and model them at much higher resolutions than previously possible. They can also test numerous hypotheses. For example, researchers could raise global sea level by two metres, run the model simulations and analyse the output and see what impact that has – and the effect this change has on the environment.

Choosing sites for such energy generation plants, and their detailed design, certainly benefits from the power of supercomputing. Using this advanced technology, large amounts of data can be analysed to strike a careful balance between how much energy is removed from the tidal flow and how this energy removal will impact the natural environment in the vicinity of the plant.

The end goal is to reduce uncertainty in our forecasts of available tidal and wave energy resources, and in so doing, boost our global renewable energy industry, reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and protect our planet. 

We all want to build a more sustainable planet, and these critical projects are already playing in integral part in achieving that goal. Thanks to the processing power of today’s supercomputers, the green utopia of tomorrow could be closer than we imagine.

To find out more about the work being carried out by the Xodus Group and Bangor University, see our case study video.