Offshore wind energy holds tremendous potential as a clean and renewable power source to combat climate change and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. However, the rapid growth of offshore wind farms across Europe has sparked concerns about their environmental impact, particularly on marine biodiversity. In addressing this concern, a multifaceted approach is essential, encompassing effective maritime spatial planning (MSP), a commitment to environmental protection, and the fostering of innovative coexistence strategies. WindEurope has provided invaluable insights and guidance on this pressing issue.
Maritime Spatial Planning and Co-Location
The expansion of activities in Europe’s marine waters, including offshore wind, has intensified spatial demands and competition among various sea users. This includes not only offshore wind but also nature conservation, aquaculture, fishing, energy production, military operations, tourism, and transport. The key to harmonizing the development of offshore wind projects with the diverse range of activities in the maritime space is Maritime Spatial Planning (MSP). MSP is not just about optimizing space; it’s about creating a framework that encourages cross-sectoral cooperation, thus minimizing spatial conflicts.
One notable benefit of MSP is the ability to co-locate various activities alongside offshore wind farms. This includes nature protection and restoration, creating a dynamic coexistence model that prioritizes sustainability and harmony among diverse sea users.
In 2022, European Union Member States submitted their first round of Maritime Spatial Plans, collectively allocating more than 220 GW of offshore wind capacity across 16 Member States. This significant development aligns with Europe’s ambitious 2030 offshore wind targets. However, several MSPs did not explicitly outline the various uses of offshore wind farms, except for Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. These Member States will revise their plans before 2030, a process that should include exploring co-location and multi-use options to enhance spatial functionality.
Enhancing Synergies and Reducing Single-Use Areas
Maritime planning should not merely divide marine areas into isolated single-use zones. Instead, it should focus on creating synergies among various activities at sea. This approach can maximize the efficient utilization of marine resources, minimize conflicts, and ensure that energy production can coexist with environmental conservation.
Offshore Wind Coexisting with Biodiversity
Acknowledging their environmental responsibilities, the offshore wind sector is committed to minimizing negative impacts on the marine ecosystem. Wind farms, like all major infrastructure projects, can have both positive and negative effects on the environment. Therefore, addressing these impacts is a fundamental aspect of responsible offshore wind development.
According to EU nature legislation, wind energy projects can be developed within or near Maritime Protected Areas, provided that an Appropriate Assessment is conducted in accordance with European and national legislation. This assessment must demonstrate that there will be no significant impacts on the local ecosystems. The European Commission’s guidance document “Wind energy developments and EU Nature Legislation” serves as a practical reference, offering examples of how projects can be approved without compromising nature protection standards.
Environmental Protection through Strategic Planning
The MSP Directive has been instrumental in de-risking offshore wind projects and ensuring that environmental impacts are considered from the earliest planning stages. A Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) is mandatory for all MSPs. This comprehensive assessment considers the macro-environmental, economic, and social impacts of all activities at sea. It provides regulators with a preliminary indication of potential impacts and mitigation strategies.
Each offshore wind farm, following MSP approval, must undergo a site-specific Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). This detailed assessment lays out potential negative impacts and strategies to avoid, mitigate, or compensate for them. The population-based approach mandated by EU legislation is critical for identifying the most effective mitigation and compensation measures, particularly for large offshore wind projects. This approach also considers cumulative impacts from multiple offshore wind projects, making it essential for off-site compensation measures.
The goal is to ensure that offshore wind projects are not only delivered successfully with minimal permitting risk but also have a positive impact on species populations and the overall health of the marine ecosystem. The EIA process usually takes about two years, and in most countries, it falls under the responsibility of project developers. Furthermore, the wind industry actively collaborates with local authorities and scientists to conduct research on the environmental impacts of wind farms. Many research findings are made publicly available, contributing to advanced models for assessing the population effects of disturbances on biodiversity.
During the construction phase of offshore wind farms, various technologies are employed to limit sound emissions generated during piling. Techniques such as bubble curtains have been used to mitigate disturbances to marine life. Innovative alternatives, including “Gentle Pile Driving,” are being developed to further lower sound levels. Importantly, any disruptions during construction are typically temporary, and marine life often returns to wind farm areas in greater numbers over time. Wind farms can effectively serve as artificial reefs, providing habitat for marine species.
This phenomenon has been demonstrated through long-term monitoring programs, such as those in Denmark and Belgium. Wind project developers are also willing to take additional measures, where needed, to protect biodiversity during the operational phase of wind farms. Technologies for detecting and deterring birds and bats are used, and in some cases, turbines are temporarily halted to prevent collisions. This requires careful monitoring of environmental impacts throughout the operational phase, as per the EIA Directive. Monitoring can be conducted independently for each wind farm, with project owners conducting their own analyses. Alternatively, monitoring can be centralized, with government authorities overseeing this task for all wind farms. For example, Belgium’s Offshore Wind Monitoring Programme, WinMon.be, exemplifies this approach.
While offshore wind farms can coexist with biodiversity and marine ecosystems, there is also the potential to enhance positive impacts. Wind turbines, once constructed, can support up to four metric tons of shellfish, creating a thriving marine ecosystem that may not have been as abundant or productive pre-construction. This, in turn, benefits larger sea mammals, including seals and harbor porpoises. A Dutch study found increased porpoise activity within operational wind farm areas compared to reference areas outside the wind farm. This increase is attributed to improved food availability, the exclusion of fisheries, and reduced vessel traffic.
Nevertheless, several measures can further enhance these positive impacts, helping seabed and local ecosystems recover more rapidly. When these measures are combined with necessary avoidance, mitigation, and compensation strategies, wind farms can have a net-positive impact on biodiversity. The wind industry actively participates in eco-designing scour protection systems and other offshore infrastructure, such as cables, that support benthic and reef ecosystems. These Nature Inclusive Designs (NID) act as catalysts for biodiversity.
Moreover, positive impacts can extend beyond the wind turbine level. For example, natural reef structures can be strategically placed between turbines. These initiatives, aimed at protecting, sustainably managing, and restoring nature, fall under the category of Nature-Based Solutions (NbS). For example, oyster reef cultures actively improve seabed conditions, increase water quality through filtration, and boost local ecosystem services, including food production. These solutions are currently being tested in the Dutch North Sea, where flat oysters were once abundant but have become scarce due to overfishing. Several oyster-related projects, including those at the Eneco Luchterduinen, Gemini, and Blauwwind offshore wind farms, are contributing to oyster reef regeneration. Commercial aquaculture applications of oyster reef regeneration hold promising potential.
Other applications of NbS include blue mussels and seaweed cultures. Seaweed, in particular, is promising for sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The first commercial project, a collaboration between the Amazon Right Now Climate Fund and North Sea Farmers in the Netherlands, is investing €1.5 million to construct a 10-hectare seaweed farm, expected to produce at least 6,000 kg of fresh seaweed in its first year (2024).
Promising solutions also exist for more complex species. The Rich North Sea is experimenting with fish hotels attached to the Hollandse Kust Noord high-voltage station. These fish hotels allow small fish to enter, keeping predatory fish out, providing shelter and a safe foraging environment for small fish. Furthermore, Orsted is planning to build artificial nesting structures for kittiwakes, a vulnerable bird species, on the coasts of North East England and East Suffolk. Each structure will offer approximately 500 nesting spaces to support new chick populations. A similar example is seen at Vattenfall’s Ray Wind Farm, where measures to restore blanket bog habitats have significantly boosted the Merlin (Falco columbarius) population, with 23 chicks fledging since 2017.
In the quest for coexistence between offshore wind energy and biodiversity, scientific research plays a crucial role in addressing knowledge gaps in permitting processes. Sound evidence resulting from real-life monitoring and research programs can empower regulators to adopt a different approach that combines the precautionary principle with cost-effective, site-specific measures.
Positive effects and synergies between wind farm developments and national conservation strategies should be promoted and integrated into offshore wind auctions through non-price criteria. These ecological criteria not only reward companies for investments in biodiversity protection but also incentivize innovation in biodiversity protection. They underscore that renewable energy and biodiversity protection can go hand in hand.
The coexistence with nature should always be in accordance with environmental principles and based on a sound cumulative impact assessment. The wind industry stands ready to deploy these solutions at a commercial scale, and some major wind farm developers have already committed to delivering net-positive biodiversity wind farms by 2030.
National plans and dialogues with stakeholders should outline the possibilities for coexistence based on socio-economic aspects. Governments must facilitate and encourage cross-sectoral dialogue to encourage synergies among different sectors.
Collaboration across borders can lead to a better understanding of which solutions apply across countries with distinct cultures, traditions, and geographies. As the wind energy sector continues to expand and evolve, it is imperative that we foster a sustainable future in which renewable energy and biodiversity conservation are not opposing forces but coexisting and mutually beneficial components of our environmental landscape.
WindEurope’s factsheet on coexistence between offshore wind energy and biodiversity provides a comprehensive guide for achieving this balance, highlighting the industry’s commitment to environmental protection and the development of sustainable energy solutions.
Source: WindEurope, Factsheet on coexistence between offshore wind energy and biodiversity