Concerns about their impact on wildlife and seabirds in particular are said to be behind delays to UK Government planning decisions about large-scale offshore wind projects
Having delayed making a decision more than once, the government in the UK is set to announce shortly whether two huge windfarms off the coast of Norfolk in England can go ahead.
The statutory decision deadline for the 2.4-GW Hornsea Project Three offshore windfarm was reset on 8 October 2019 and 23 January 2020. The deadline for the decision on the 1.8 GW Norfolk Vanguard offshore windfarm was reset on 23 January 2020. The reset deadline for both applications was 1 June 2020.
However, in a 25 June 2020 statement, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Alok Sharma said a decision on the Hornsea Project Three and Norfolk Vanguard would now be made by 1 July 2020.
The Secretary of State decided to set a new deadline for the applications ’to allow further consideration to be given to environmental information received following consultation on both applications.’
The exact nature of the environmental issues was not disclosed, but submissions to an Environmental Audit Committee inquiry* earlier this month make clear the nature of some of these potential areas, including a submission from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) that claimed the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) recently had to ‘force the issue’ of the impact of the windfarms on bird life and compensatory measures for that impact.
Without mentioning Hornsea Project Three and Norfolk Vanguard by name, the RSPB said the issue had resulted in “delayed decisions and uncertainty” and had highlighted what it described as “the urgent need for research into the feasibility of compensation measures for seabirds and other marine wildlife.
“Decisions on the current crop of Round 3 projects in the southern North Sea are being delayed, in part due to the need to face up to the cumulative, damaging impacts of offshore wind on declining seabird populations in this area,” the RSPB said in its written submission.
The RSPB said “urgent action is required to ensure deployment of offshore wind can happen in harmony with nature, which means avoiding the cumulative environmental impacts that large-scale deployment could bring.
“At present the planning process for identifying new lease sites for offshore wind differs between UK countries,” the RSPB said. “The knowledge gaps that exist and the uncertainty of the nature and scale of risk to marine wildlife, particularly seabirds, hampers this planning.”
It went on to say that “historically, there has been an unwillingness to tackle fully these gaps and reduce uncertainty. As a result, projects have continued to progress in locations that present significant risks to some of our most important protected seabird populations.
“The first step to addressing the serious implications of these cumulative impacts is acknowledging them and the consequential need to discuss openly whether and how those impacts might need to be compensated for. Such open discussions lead to joint problem solving with regulators and nature conservation groups,” said the RSPB.
“This is a lesson the UK ports industry learned quickly in the late 1990s/early 2000s and it resulted in proactive, constructive discussions on subsequent major port development schemes. Unfortunately, the offshore wind industry has resisted this approach,” it claimed.
WWF told the same inquiry it strongly supports the deployment of offshore renewables at scale, including offshore wind to meet the UK’s net zero commitments, but said that “badly planned or constructed offshore wind energy can have long-term impacts on biodiversity.”
It highlighted that compared to around 9 GW of current capacity, it is forecast that up to 75 GW may be needed to help deliver net zero. “If not delivered sensitively to the marine environmental values of the UK, this could have profound implications for marine wildlife,” said WWF.
“We stand at a critical juncture. This expansion of renewable energy must be conducted in a strategic and systematic way that avoids or minimises short-term impacts to marine biodiversity. We believe this is both possible and necessary, but that the UK Government is not taking the necessary steps to ensure this happens at the present time.”
Giving evidence to the inquiry, Ørsted head of UK market development, consenting and external affairs Benj Sykes said, “One of the challenges we face is the precautionary principle. I know there are going to be questions around whether we have enough data to understand what our impacts are. I think we do. I think there is more work we need to do, though. It is already starting between government, industry and the Crown Estate, to put all these pieces together and build that strategic picture particularly around birdlife, what is going on and where are the right places to put windfarms in the context of the macro view rather than the individual project view.
“One of the concerns I have is that, as we take quite a project-level approach to environmental management, we end up with a patchwork of development and we end up with a very inefficient use of the sea, both for offshore wind and also for marine protection. A more strategic approach would give us a great opportunity to make the most of this fabulous wind resource and also the marine ecosystems that we want to preserve.”
Mr Sykes said, “We are working not just with BEIS and DEFRA but also with the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB and also, of course, closely with arm’s length bodies of DEFRA, the regulators like the MMO, and also bodies like Natural England. We have brought that ecosystem together, as has the Crown Estate as landlord. I think we have created the right forum for that collaboration to find solutions together.”
Mr Sykes also said “there is no doubt that we need to see more resourcing” and the arm’s length bodies “are woefully under resourced for the scale of the challenge that we face to get to net zero, principally in offshore wind but I am sure in other areas, too. We need to put in very small amounts of money relative to the £50Bn (US$61Bn) of investment to properly resource that conversation.”
Environmental audit committee member Robert Goodwill MP said, “I think it is clear from what we have heard that we need more information about the effect on seabirds.”
The RSPB noted that the Offshore Wind Sector Deal specifically acknowledged and committed to address the environmental ‘barriers to deployment,’ which include the cumulative impacts of multiple offshore wind projects on seabird populations across the UK. But it said action taken on the issue “has been inadequate.”
It said an Offshore Wind Strategic Enabling Actions Programme had been established by The Crown Estate to consider the environmental challenges, “but the rate of progress is much too slow.” It said the most recent workshop for partner and stakeholder organisations took place in December 2019. This reaffirmed the need to address the environmental challenges but went no further.
“Action is needed, material commitments and delivery are required, without these the environmental challenges will persist and could both jeopardise the UK’s marine wildlife and the achievement of the offshore wind sector ambitions,” the RSPB said.
“In order to maximise capacity of the offshore wind sector there is an urgent need for government to lead in tackling the environmental challenges that this scale of development brings,” it concluded. “Direct investment in monitoring and research to better understand and avoid the risks posed to seabird populations and other marine wildlife is needed; investment that is proportionate to the scale of ambition for offshore wind.
“Individual developers are taking steps and increasing investment in research, which is hugely welcomed. This will contribute toward new evidence and learning that will be of benefit not just to the individual companies but to the whole sector. While welcomed, it is not possible to rely solely on developer actions, which are largely voluntary and piecemeal. To improve efficiencies and increase the rate at which environmental knowledge gaps are filled requires leadership from UK Government and devolved administrations to ramp up strategic investment.”
* ‘Technological Innovations and Climate Change: Offshore Wind’