European Commission announces massive offshore renewable energy projects despite no research on long-term effects on marine environment
The European Commission has said that it is determined to go ahead with offshore wind farms despite not having fully researched the consequences of installing man-made structures in the marine environment.
Today, the Commission presented the EU Strategy on Offshore Renewable Energy. The Strategy proposes to increase Europe’s offshore wind capacity from its current level of 12 GW to at least 60 GW by 2030 and to 300 GW by 2050. The Commission aims to complement this with 40 GW of ocean energy and other emerging technologies such as floating wind and solar by 2050.
The Commission’s decision to adopt the plan has been welcomed by Commissioner for Energy, Kadri Simson, who said: “Europe is a world leader in offshore renewable energy and can become a powerhouse for its global development. We must step up our game by harnessing all the potential of offshore wind and by advancing other technologies such as wave, tidal and floating solar. This Strategy sets a clear direction and establishes a stable framework, which are crucial for public authorities, investors and developers in this sector. We need to boost the EU’s domestic production to achieve our climate targets, feed the growing electricity demand and support the economy in its post-Covid recovery.”
Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, VirginijusSinkevičius, said: “Today’s strategy outlines how we can develop offshore renewable energy in combination with other human activities, such as fisheries, aquaculture or shipping, and in harmony with nature. The proposals will also allow us to protect biodiversity and to address possible socio-economic consequences for sectors relying on good health of marine ecosystems, thus promoting a sound coexistence within the maritime space.”
The Commission estimates that an investment of nearly €800 billion will be needed between now and then. The Commission will analyse and monitor the environmental, social and economic impacts of offshore renewable energy on the marine environment and the economic activities that depend on it with the Commission promising to regularly consult a community of experts from public authorities, stakeholders and scientists. Today, the Commission has also adopted a new guidance document on wind energy development and EU nature legislation.
Many fisheries groups and organisations have written to the Commission expressing their concerns that the installation of offshore windfarms could have severe consequences for native fish stocks and the biodiversity of the marine ecosystem.
In August this year, EAPO and Europeche called for a precautionary approach and the halting of the current expansion of offshore windfarms until research comes up with the answers to the many existing knowledge gaps.
In their call for a precautionary approach they said the construction of offshore windfarms causes great concern for the fishing industry on three fronts:
Firstly, fishers face the loss of valuable fishing grounds. Planning applications for offshore wind farms are usually sought on fishing grounds that are most profitable. Coupled with the increasing number of marine protected areas (MPAs), fishing vessels are running out of places to fish. Once an offshore wind farm is in place, there is an exclusion limit in place around the site, therefore excluding fishers from their traditional grounds. This also leads to a second problem.
Secondly, the imposition of manmade structures in the marine environment has been shown to change the biodiversity of those areas. Water currents are disrupted, therefore leading to the disturbance of natural feed flows for fish, leading to famine for the native species. Other issues are aliens predatory species moving in around these structures. Eventually this can lead to the mortality of native fish stocks.
Thirdly, with the increasing number of offshore wind farms, MPAs and Highly Protected Marine Areas (HMPAs) areas left for fishing are in danger of becoming overworked, leading to extreme stress of fish stocks in those areas.
Various research reports have shown the effect on man-made structures in the marine environment, and the majority have shown negative results. For example, Jennifer Dannheim who was involved in a study for the Alfred Wegener Institute, which addresses the lack of understanding and research on the cause-effect-relationships by the implementation of artificial structures in benthic systems.
With her co-authors, she identifies knowledge gaps on how marine renewable energy installations affect the ecosystem functioning and services of the benthic system.
“In particular”, she says, “these are about (a) hydrodynamic changes possibly resulting in altered primary production with potential consequences for filter feeders, (b) the introduction and range expansion of non-native species (through stepping stone effects) and, (c) noise and vibration effects on benthic organisms.
“Our results further provide evidence that benthic sensitivity to offshore renewable effects is higher than previously indicated”.
In the early part of November this year, the North West Waters Advisory Council along with two fellow advisory councils issued a letter to DG MARE calling on further research into the impacts of offshore wind farms on the development of commercial fishing stocks.
They examined the growing number of offshore wind farms noting that 502 offshore wind turbines were connected to the grid in 2019 across 20 projects.
“This places marine wind energy developments firmly into the space of viable commercial fisheries in many Member States which is of great concern to fishers. Writes the group in the joint letter. “Sustainable fisheries management is at the heart of the Common Fisheries Policy, and the many efforts made by fishers in the North East Atlantic in implementing and adhering to the rules of sustainable stock management have led to a stabilisation of many commercial stocks.
“On both the European and the international level it is unclear to what extent potential cumulative effects of offshore wind energy developments on fishing areas, for example spawning grounds, nursery areas, or important habitats for fish stocks, are taken into account in a cross-border context, as policy, research and mitigation appear not to be streamlined. Currently, effects on a wide scale are unknown, and research, monitoring and marine spatial planning tend to be carried out at a national level.”
Dutch fishermen in the North Sea have expressed grave concern over the development of offshore wind farms.
Fishers who traditionally operated in the areas where turbines have been installed have experienced a drop in fish which they are blaming on offshore wind farms as they believe it is altering sea currents which in turns takes away feeding for juvenile fish and allows invasive species enter the system.
Fisherman, Martijn van den Berg is not only sceptical about the future construction, but also about the existing wind farms. “The marine ecosystem is already suffering from this. We see that the areas around the wind farms are no longer as flourishing as they used to be. Fishing is actually completely gone around these parks.”
According to Van den Berg, the parks are also disastrous for the reproduction of the fish: “Most wind farms are built in places where they reproduce.”
The issue of whether or not offshore renewable energy and fishing can co-exist is not the question. The question is, will fishing still exist when all the offshore wind farms exist?
In Norway, the Institute of Marine Research issued this advice in relation to offshore wind farms:
– HI recommends that a standardized protocol be drawn up for offshore wind facilities adapted to Norwegian conditions, which includes thorough preliminary investigations of the areas before development, as well as monitoring of both physical and biological changes during operation and after decommissioning of the facilities. Due to large fluctuations in the densities of pelagic species, the preliminary investigations must take place for at least three years. The protocol should also describe how data should be made publicly available.
– HI advises against wind power development in areas that are particularly important for certain species, such as spawning areas and migration routes for relevant fish stocks and grazing and throwing areas for certain marine mammal species.
– HI advises against wind power development in particularly vulnerable or valuable areas.
– HI recommends that when issuing offshore wind licenses, clear requirements are presented for the removal of the structures after the end of operations.
– HI recommends the use of noise-reducing measures such as bubble curtains during development, and that development work is avoided during spawning periods for fish, as well as grazing and throwing periods for marine mammals, in and near areas where this applies.
– HI recommends the use of materials in the mooring of floating wind turbines that make as little noise as possible during movements of the turbines, avoiding jerking and napping in the anchor chain.
– HI recommends collecting data to investigate the extent to which wind power plants change physical conditions such as. current pattern and sound image. Collected data should be openly available.
– HI recommends that thorough preliminary studies are carried out to make an updated overview of the species in the areas of influence before development. Collected data should be openly available.
– HI recommends data collection to investigate the extent to which wind power plants change biological conditions such as. species composition and behaviour. Collected data should be openly available.
It also found that “The distribution of plankton can also be affected by the structures due to changes in flowing water movements.”
Their research showed:
“Submarine cables from wind turbines produce static and time-varying electromagnetic fields. Many animals use electromagnetism for orientation and movement behaviour. Therefore, it is likely that migration and establishment of such species will be affected by changes in the electromagnetic field around cables that transfer energy from the turbines. Effects are expected to be greater for benthic species, but effects on transient planktonic organisms cannot be ruled out. However, the extent and magnitude of such effects are currently little known.
“The sound from piling during the construction phase can damage the hearing of animals or cause them to avoid the area, but mitigating measures, such as bubble curtains, can significantly reduce the sound exposure. Research on the effects of wind power plants on marine organisms and ecosystems has mainly focused on the construction phase. However, even for this phase, it is still unclear whether effects that have been reported on individual animals can be transferred to population-level effects.
“During the operation phase, the turbines continuously produce low-frequency sound. Continuous low-frequency sound can affect important behaviours, such as sediment mixing, grazing, defence behaviour, reproduction, and communication. However, the extent of these negative effects, compared to positive effects such as increased availability of food and shelter, is unknown. There are also significant knowledge gaps in the potential for marine organisms to become accustomed to noise exposure over longer periods of time.”
Their report found that they did not have enough knowledge on the long-term affects of offshore windfarms. They say:
“We conclude that with current knowledge, it is impossible to predict whether the overall effect of offshore wind farms on life underwater will be positive or negative.”