24 March, 2024

Wind energy and nature protection, a win-win?

Speaking at the Wind Europe conference in Bilbao, Spain

I headed to Spain last Thursday from Brussels.

My trip there was to speak at the Wind Europe conference in Bilbao, a massive event with over 12,000 delegates.  I was asked to reflect on whether there is a conflict between high targets for renewable energy under the Renewable Energy Directive (RED III), and the strong push to protect biodiversity under the Nature Restoration Law and other European measures such as the Biodiversity Strategy.

I said that both policies need not necessarily lead to conflict, and that it isn’t a zero sum game.  As the North Sea Foundation points out here, as well as Laura Gusatu and others, there are both risks and opportunities. Sure, the target under RED III of 42.5% of the EU’s energy coming from renewables by 2030 is high, and the RepowerEU Plan has even higher ambition of 45%, but they can be delivered, and in doing so we mitigate the impacts of global heating.   However EU Member States will have to rapidly ramp up ambition in the coming years if we are to be successful. I pass by the large Gwynt y Môr wind farm off the coast of Wales quite regularly on my Sailrail journeys to Brussels, and noticed recently that there is currently a second wind farm adjacent to it in the pipeline. I understand how communities are concerned at the impact of this infrastructure, not least their visual impact in scenic areas.

Biodiversity Plans need to be written and approved quickly, energy efficiency measures have to be stepped up, and there needs to be more engagement with Civil Society.  In the Irish context that means  responding to the voices of organisations like the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, An Taisce and the Coastal Concern Alliance.  I said that the setting up of MARA -the new Irish Maritime Area Regulatory Authority is a crucial development, but that we also need to step up our efforts to educe for the future skills that are required in the sector.  I also spoke of the potential for ‘Renewable Energy Communities’.  These are legislated for under the Renewables Directives and can allow local communities to buy in to future projects, and become part owners of projects within their region.

At an EU level we must invest in electricity grids to get from where it is produced to where it is needed.  There’s no transition without transmission” said one speaker, was it Olivia Breese from Ørsted? And it is true, the EU’s Action Plan for Grids announced last November will help, but the Trans-European Network Plan for Energy needs to be revised to focus more on this.  The in-box of the next European Commission, to be appointed next Autumn will be full.

Seabed surveys using sonar can affect cetacean behaviour, and the Scottish Government has shown how this can be reduced. Construction noise can impact on cetaceans at sea, and the use of screw piles rather than hammer-driven piles can help.  Air bubble curtains can also help ameliorate noise.  During the operation phase low frequency noise can also be an issue, and needs to be carefully considered.

As wind turbines get larger the turbine blades can be higher.  This reduces conflicts with certain bird species that fly at low altitude.  Black paint on turbine blade tips can render the blades more visible and help birds change their flight paths to avoid the blades.  There’s also untapped potential for bird flock radar monitoring during migration periods which can ensure energy providers power down turbines as birds approach to reduce the risk of collisions.  I've seen this in operation in the Netherlands some years ago. All of these technologies go some way to help reduce the impacts on nature.  From Denmark there’s some evidence that the artificial rock reefs at underwater turbine bases can provide a habitat for marine species, though sediment disturbance during construction is a problem.  Once constructed however , wind farms provide significant areas that are protected from bottom trawling, and this can create de facto maritime parks.  

With Belgian colleague Energy Minister Tinne Van Der Straeten

I met my Belgian colleague Energy Minister Tinne Van Der Straeten, and she said we should make greater use of Regional Plans, and I tend to agree.  Ditte Jul Jorgensen, Director-General of DG ENER (the European Commission’s energy unit) said we need to stay the course, and simplify bureaucracy.  In addition, more work is needed on EU Strategic Autonomy.  This can ensure that we are less reliant on China for key components of the renewable revolution.  The EU’s Net-Zero Industry Act will help to push the ‘Made in Europe’ drive, and will provide a more focused response to US President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.

At a separate session, I heard Grzegorz Gorski from Ocean Energy spoke of the supply chain challenges within the industry that have been there since the pandemic.  Separately, Trine Boris Bojsen of Equinor’s North Sea Renewables spoke of the need for standardisation within the industry, so rather than jumping at the prospect of 22 MW turbines, we should stick with 15 MW, which incidentally is enormous compared with what was being rolled out a decade ago. 


Exhibition Hall at the Wind Europe Conference in Bilbao

It was a lively conference, and I haven’t even mentioned the enormous exhibition halls that displayed new technologies and equipment. Renewables have been a success story for Ireland, almost 40% of our electricity now comes from renewables, and both wind and solar are set to ramp up in the years ahead. As the week drew to a close, we heard of a new Taoiseach-apparent in Ireland, Simon Harris, and from Brussels concerns that the draft Nature Restoration Law may be voted down by the Council of Ministers. 

 It seems the fight for nature will be a crunch issue in the European elections on Friday 7th June.