Open Your Mind: A Q&A with MES student Stephen Sangiuliano

image of York graduate student Steve Sangiuliano standing on a beach
York graduate student Steve Sangiuliano standing on a beach

Appearing at regular intervals in YFile, Open Your Mind is a series of articles offering insight into the different ways York University professors, researchers and graduate students champion fresh ways of thinking in their research and teaching practice. Their approach, grounded in a desire to seek the unexpected, is charting a new course for future generations.

Today, the spotlight is on master of environmental studies (MES) student Stephen Sangiulianowho is breaking ground with his research on marine spatial planning for tidal current turbines. Sangiuliano is working under the supervision of FES Professor Mark Winfield.

stephen1Q. Please describe your field of current research.

A. My research focus is on marine spatial planning (MSP) for tidal current turbines (TCTs). MSP is a more recent field of planning in comparison to more mature terrestrial land use planning. The purpose of MSP, essentially, is to spatially allocate different uses of any given marine environment in order to avoid interindustry conflicts and the effects that such spatial uses may individually and cumulatively have on natural ecosystem processes. TCTs are a relatively new renewable energy technology that employ the lateral movement of the tides to turn a rotor, turning kinetic energy into electricity that is transferred to onshore electrical grids via subsea power cables and substations. TCTs are advantageous in relation to other renewable energy technologies due to their predictability, reliability and ability to provide base-load power with minimal energy storage capacity.

However, TCTs become another user of finite and already stressed marine space, and therefore the application of MSP to TCTs in resource-abundant sites can identify the most suitable areas of deployment based on environmental, sociocultural, industrial, technical, and political constraint, exclusion and opportunity. This then promotes economic stability to coastal regions while upholding the integrity of ecosystem services which such coastal economies are dependent upon. Applying this strategic siting associated with MSP to TCTs also demonstrates governmental support for the industry by reducing risk for potential developers that may be deterred due to expenditures associated with extensive site assessments and permitting processes.

In line with the above application, the Marine Scotland (MS) division of the Scottish Government became the first and only nation to construct and implement a sectoral marine plan for tidal energy (SMPTE) and, subsequently, is the first and only nation to implement a commercial-scale, grid-connected TCT array. I went to Aberdeen, Scotland, to work for MS to undertake a quality management review of their SMPTE against International Council for the Exploration of the Sea’s (ICES) Marine Spatial Planning Quality Management System, which is published in MSs Marine and Freshwater Science. Most recently, I went to Wolfville, N.S., where I have constructed a SMPTE for the province in close relation with the Canadian Maritime Department of Fisheries & Oceans, inclusive of jurisdictional boundaries, regulatory authorities, plan option areas for suitable deployment and quality management framework. My next venture is to New Bedford, Mass., to help a private developer devise a business plan for a tidal energy test centre based on the technical operational parameters of different device designs.

Q. What inspired you to pursue this line of research? Who or what sparked your interest in this line of inquiry?

A. Upon starting my master’s in environmental studies degree at York University, I hadn’t the slightest clue about renewable energy systems and/or what “planning” even meant. In a coordinated effort to educate myself, I downloaded every article available off of the first 10 pages of search results of Google Scholar for every renewable energy type I had read existed on Wikipedia. One day I opened an article entitled “Modeling the Operation and Maintenance Costs of a Large Scale Tidal Current Turbine Farm,” written by Ye Li and H. Keith Florig, and this was the first time I saw a tidal current turbine (presented below). I thought it was the most majestic site, a piece of technology that can concur the vast and dangerous ocean in an attempt to save the planet. After learning about the technology, I was instantly hooked, and immediately dropped all other focuses in my life and told myself that I would go through hell and high water (no pun intended) to put these devices in the ocean.

At the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) – the first and largest TCT test centre in the world, located in the Orkney Islands, Scotland. Behind is one of the first commercial-scale TCTs to be deployed at EMEC, the Alstom TCT

Q. How would you describe the significance of your research in lay terms?

A. By determining and/or establishing jurisdictional and regulatory authorities, developing a SMPTE under a quality management framework and strategically siting TCTs in areas of prime suitability, my research can ideally help streamline the uptake of TCTs in resource-abundant regions across the globe by demonstrating  government support to reduce risk to project developers, thereby contributing to the international initiative to curtail greenhouse gas emissions and the negative implications of climate change.

Q. How are you approaching this field in a different, unexpected or unusual way?

A. Due to the infancy of my niche research field, I am approaching the application of SMPTE based off of the process methodology employed in the Scottish context in conjunction with best practice frameworks of MSP and leading intellectual advances in all aspects of TCT design and implementation, ranging from array layout optimization to under keel clearance approaches to far-field sediment transfer. Much of what I have learned has been self-taught, and to use Jimi Hendrix as a metaphor, I can’t be certain that it is perhaps the most proper academic approach, but certainly may lead to new outside-the-box ideas.

Q. How does your approach to the subject benefit the field?

A. Due to the infancy of my niche research field, much of the methodology I am employing is based off of current best practices and new strategic siting parameters and regulatory frameworks I can propose. However, similar MSP frameworks to the SMPTE framework I have devised have only been implemented in a handful of European nations. Therefore, in nations such as Canada, for example, where no published compressive MSP process has been implemented, the application of my research methodology has shown vast differences in the identification of plan option areas in Nova Scotia waters backed by quantifiable scientific and technical parameters in relation to areas identified in the Marine Renewable-energy Act 2015 in the absence of this quantifiable criterion.

stephen-work-scottishQ. What findings have surprised and excited you? (I.e. tell us about the most interesting finding, person and/or place you encountered while pursuing this line of inquiry.)

A. The most shocking finding I uncovered during my research was how the Nova Scotia context on tidal energy development essentially utilized no methodological framework at all in order to legislate marine renewable energy areas under the Marine Renewable-energy Act 2015. This became apparent as plan option areas identified in my research via the employment of a quantifiable scientific and technical methodological strategic siting process adopted from the Scottish context and enhanced demonstrated very different plan option areas. Furthermore, the lack of jurisdictional provincial marine boundaries and a central legislative regulatory authority shed more light on the justification for the absence of offshore energy implementation in Canada in relation to European nations, who have delegated centralized structured regulatory regimes.

Most importantly, the most surprising factor I have encountered in my research was the character of one great man, Dr. Ian Davies, manager of Renewables & Energy for Marine Scotland. I cannot even remotely compare another instance in my life where one person has gone out of their way so much to help another. Ian is the truest embodiment of the word philanthropist, and he provided me with the greatest gift of all – an opportunity. I will not let it go to waste … bill me for all of your ongoing consultation when I get one of these turbines in the water.

Q. Every researcher encounters roadblocks and challenges during the process of inquiry. Can you highlight some of those challenges and how you overcame them?

A. Perhaps the largest challenge I found during my research was the lack of coordination between various levels of government and private organizations in the Canadian context, which impeded the release of data from industry experts for purposes of my research project. In order to overcome this roadblock, I sought communication with the federal governmental agency the Maritime Department of Fisheries & Oceans Canada (DFO), who were open to innovative ways of approaching MSP in relation to TCTs. The DFO provided a huge quantity of the data used in the analysis and were helpful from the moment I met with them and until the end of the project. I hope we can continue to work together in the future.

stephen-work-nova-scotiaQ. How has this research opened your mind to new possibilities or new directions?

A. My research has opened my mind to a plethora of various research fields surrounding the implementation of TCTs internationally, particularly the integration of devices in large multinational offshore electricity grids in conjunction with other offshore renewable energy technologies, such as offshore wind and wave energy where staggered energy outputs emanating from resource phase shifting across large geographical areas can meet base-load power demand for different nations at different times of the day.

Q. Are there interdisciplinary aspects to your research? If so, what are they?

A. Given that my research is predicated on the integration of large renewable technologies that depend on natural resources as a fuel source being implemented into a sensitive and biologically diverse marine environment whose ecosystem functions contribute to the economy of coastal communities, it follows suit that such research is intrinsically multidisciplinary, inclusive of the full spectrum of social and natural sciences and engineering.

Q. Did you ever consider other fields of research?

A. Short answer: yes, I have considered other fields of research, ranging from specializing in offshore grid planning to environmental law. There are many challenges the global environment is facing, which are indeed negative; however, this means that there are many solutions to be devised and methodologies to be applied in order to solve such problems, which can be seen as positive if one has an innovative mindset. This being said, I have fully committed to my ambition of being a TCT developer and will not stray from this path no matter how difficult the journey becomes.

Q. What advice would you give to students embarking on a research project for the first time?

A. Have a plan and stick to it. Always believe in yourself. Utilize the resources that are available to you, both human and financial, as there certainly is an abundance out there, especially for those at York. But don’t expect these resources to be given to you or to complete your work for you – you and you alone are both the only entity that can achieve your goals or stand in the way of achieving your goals. Most importantly, when someone tells you that you cannot do something, interpret this as a positive, especially if these words are directed towards you by someone who is more experienced than you, because that statement just means that they themselves cannot do what you wish to. This is how you know you are on to something special and worth working towards.

Q. Why did you choose York to pursue your graduate studies?

A. I chose York to pursue my MES because of the personal autonomy offered by the program to focus your research efforts in any area imaginable. I would dare to say that there are no more than a handful of other research institutions and faculty members in the world that would support someone to indulge in a field as abstract or niche as marine spatial planning for tidal current turbines.

Q. Tell us a bit about yourself.

A. I grew up in a small, predominately rural town called Maple, Ont., in the 1990s, my fondest memories being the times I spent in solitude on numerous nature trails – an aphrodisiac of sorts, to which nothing can match to this date, 25 years later. Unfortunately, Maple became one of the fastest growing municipalities in the world in the early 2000s, and I witnessed much of the nature that I was so fond of disappear to low-density suburban sprawl. This is the moment in my life when I first became what I would deem an “environmentalist.” During my undergraduate degree in environmental studies at York University, the threat of global climate change had become my latest and most eminent concern, particularly due to the fact that it was something that you could not see forming tangibly in front of you, as I had seen the character of my small town disappear. Nor was it a threat that was even limited to a town like Maple, but moreover towns and cities like Maple all across the globe without prejudice. In an effort to contribute what I can to this world to ensure that younger generations get to experience their own pre-2000 Maple, I took an interest in renewable energy.

Q. How long have you been a researcher?

A. Six months.

Q. What books, recordings or films have influenced your life?

A. There Will Be Blood; The Wolf of Wall Street; The Pursuit of Happiness; Into the Wild.

Q. What are you reading and/or watching right now?

A. I am expanding my knowledge on offshore electrical grid planning.

Q. If you could have dinner with any one person, dead or alive, who would you select and why?

A. I have always been fascinated by great men and women throughout history. Out of all of these great people, the one I would want to have dinner with is Louis C.K. His ability to find humour in everyday, mundane mediocrity makes life seem worth living, even when it doesn’t feel that way. Also, I know he wouldn’t enjoy having dinner with me because he generally seems like an introverted, miserable person, and even though I am a huge fan, it would probably be a bother for him … I would enjoy the awkwardness.

Q. What do you do for fun?

A. My most enjoyable personal moments are when I am walking in solitude through nature.