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Offshore wind and conservation

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Conflict Stories

Story 1: Forth and Tay wind farms, Scotland
In 2014, four offshore wind farms were granted consent in the Forth and Tay region – Neart na Gaoithe (450MW), Inch Cape (784MW), Seagreen Alpha and Bravo (1,050MW). The decision by Scottish Ministers to grant the consents was legally challenged by RSPB Scotland, an environmental NGO, based on concerns regarding the cumulative risk to seabird populations from collision and displacement. The case was heard in Court of Session, Edinburgh, in 2015, and the judge agreed with the case put forward by RSPB, concluding that the requirements of the environmental assessment processes were not met, including a failure to consult properly and misuse of appropriate assessment.

Conflicting elements 

Conflicts between offshore wind farming and area-based marine conservation mostly arise on account of noise disturbance and displacement.

  • Noise pollution during the construction phase. Noise disturbance during the construction phase can lead to changes in the behaviour of a range of sea animals. Research in Germany and Denmark confirms that porpoises temporary migrate to other areas during pile driving, but that population density returns to normal after the pile driving is finished.
  • Noise pollution during the operational phase. Some species of offshore seabirds avoid areas where OWFs have been constructed and neighbouring areas. Mammals such as porpoises, bottlenose dolphins, Northern Right whale, harbour seals and baleen whales can be disturbed by specific frequencies of underwater noise.
  • Other impacts on birds. Apart from collision, the erection of offshore wind turbines may affect birds as follows: (1) short-term habitat loss during construction, (2) long-term habitat loss due to disturbance by turbines, (3) formation of barriers on migration routes and (4) disconnection of ecological units, such as roosting and feeding sites. Cumulative effects may arise in connection with other pressures on birds (such as shipping).
  • Ecological damage to the sea floor. Offshore piling and cable laying also influence the sea floor. For fish and fish larvae, pile driving can have a negative effect, but recent research found this to be extremely small. Electromagnetic fields seem to have minor effects on certain fish species.

Drivers of conflict 

The key drivers for the expansion of offshore wind farming are the renewable energy objectives set by Member States and the increasing size of offshore wind farms, including larger turbines. 

International environmental policy sets out ambitious targets for area-based marine conservation. The Aichi targets for the Convention on Biological Diversity stipulate that by 2020, 10% of marine areas, especially those of high biological and ecological significance, should be managed as protected areas. Other political drivers include the UN Sustainable Development Goals, especially Goal 14 “Life under water”, as well as EU-wide and national biodiversity and climate polices. The Marine Strategy Framework Directive’s Descriptor 11 specifies that “Introduction of energy, including underwater noise, is at levels that do not adversely affect the marine environment”. There are also species-specific conservation targets at the population level. Uncertainty remains a key driver of conflict, as a precautionary approach may dominate in the absence of sound knowledge. This is particularly the case for cumulative effects of human activities, where offshore wind farming may only be one factor among many.

Public perception may also be a driver of conflict as species protection can be an emotional issue. At the same time, public opinion in many countries is in favour of renewables, which may increasingly also include offshore wind.