Compensation measures proposed by the developers of two huge offshore windfarms in the North Sea are ‘unproven and unsupported by scientific evidence,’ the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) claims, but is hopeful that a new, collaborative approach to understand how best to compensate for the environmental effects of large-scale offshore wind development could soon emerge
As highlighted by OWJ, on 1 July 2020, the UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Alok Sharma said he was minded to approve planning permission for Ørsted’s 2.4-GW Hornsea Project Three offshore windfarm but would seek further input on environmental issues before he finally does so. At the same time, the Secretary of State approved Vattenfall’s 1.8-GW Norfolk Vanguard project.
The steps a developer can take to reduce the environmental impact of a project are of two main types. Mitigation measures reduce or avoid predicted damage and can, for example, take the form of a change of turbine layout/size or removal of turbines. Compensation measures address residual damage that cannot be mitigated.
Approval for both projects was delayed more than once as the Secretary of State sought information about a number of issues, not least the compensation measures for protected seabird populations that would be affected by the windfarms.
In evidence to a House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) inquiry, the RSPB claimed the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) had to ‘force the issue’ of the impact of the windfarms on bird life and compensatory measures for that impact. It expressed disappointment that Norfolk Vanguard has been approved, and that the Secretary of State is ‘minded to approve’ Hornsea Project Three but believes that the projects could yet mark a turning point in the way the UK offshore wind industry approaches the issue.
The charity says the environmental impact of offshore wind development in the North Sea and its effect on birds will grow significantly as the UK builds more large-scale windfarms. The UK Government is committed to constructing 40 GW of offshore wind by 2030 – around four times existing capacity – and plans are already underway for extensions to existing projects and for more large-scale development in Round 4.
RSPB head of casework Andrew Dodd told OWJ that the likely impact of Round 3 developments such as Hornsea Project Three and Norfolk Vanguard has been clear for nearly a decade but only recently has it been acknowledged. “The RSPB supports decarbonisation of UK energy through increased deployment of renewables including offshore wind, provided we can find the right place for it,” he told OWJ, “but the scale of development is such that the impact on birds has grown tremendously and will continue to grow unless there are significant changes to how this technology is planned.
“We have spent many years trying to persuade the examiners of these projects of the scale of the impact and potential damage to breeding seabird colonies. The same seabirds that will be affected by Hornsea Project Three and Norfolk Vanguard – and by other projects like them – are already in decline because of other factors reflecting the poor health of our seas.
“With Hornsea Project Three, the government has finally accepted we have reached a point at which it was impossible to maintain that the projects will not be damaging to some seabirds. Under the Habitats Regulations, any damage has to be made good if the project is to be allowed to go ahead. The problem is that the offshore wind industry has been reluctant to engage on these difficult issues, although we hope that is now changing.
“Another contributing factor is the failure of England’s marine plans to adequately address climate change and establish a clear direction for a sustainable energy transition. In order to decarbonise in harmony with nature, it is vital that government align energy and environmental objectives to inform a strategic approach to ambitious infrastructure developments.”
The RSPB told OWJ that Ørsted “will be under no illusion” that proving they can deliver successful compensation that genuinely helps kittiwakes will be extremely difficult. It is concerned this may be impossible to achieve, but said it looks forward to working with the company to explore different options as well as support the government in assessing the viability of any proposals.
Ørsted told OWJ that it is “confident of providing the evidence to ensure that consent will be granted later this year,” but the RSPB remains concerned that compensation for Hornsea Project Three may not be achievable. It is worried about offshore wind’s effects on a number of species, but particularly concerned about the effects of projects on kittiwakes and believes that development of the windfarms will lead to increased collisions between birds and turbines and adversely affect the birds’ ability to use feeding grounds.
Ørsted’s compensation proposal for Hornsea Project Three is based on making offshore islands elsewhere in the UK suitable for use by kittiwakes and culling mammals on those islands that could predate the birds. This approach is believed to have been used in nature conservation, on islands such as Lindisfarne and Lundy, but as yet there are no examples of it being used for compensation. The RSPB told OWJ that it may have potential to protect ground nesting birds, such as puffins, which use burrows, but it is doubtful about its effectiveness with kittiwakes, which nest on cliffs. Islands in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are understood to have been considered by the developer.
Vattenfall’s suggested compensation measure for Norfolk Vanguard was an artificial offshore nesting platform for the birds, in the North Sea, in the area in which its plans to construct the windfarm, a proposal the RSPB believes would have exposed any birds that did colonise it to collision risk.
Responding to the proposals in a written submission to the consultation on the projects, the RSPB said it considered that the Secretary of State had not been provided with the necessary information to reach a conclusion and should not consent the proposals without that evidence.
Commenting on the measures proposed for Hornsea Project Three and Norfolk Vanguard it said that devising compensation measures for breeding kittiwakes with a reasonable guarantee of success is “highly problematic.”
The RSPB said its conclusion is that Hornsea Project Three and Norfolk Vanguard have not established that their preferred options meet the necessary standards and evidence base to be considered a compensation measure that has a reasonable guarantee of success, based on best scientific knowledge. It also raised questions about whether the measures could be secured legally, financially and technically.
Mr Dodd said the RSPB hopes that the UK’s Sector Deal for Offshore Wind will bring about a much more collaborative approach in which industry will work closely with stakeholders to address the ’barriers to deployment’. He told OWJ that more research was needed to obtain a clearer idea of the threat to seabirds from offshore wind developments of the scale envisaged in UK waters. “This includes research, such as pilot projects, into the feasibility of compensation measures for seabirds and other marine wildlife in order to reduce the uncertainty that surrounds our ability to deliver such measures successfully,” he said.
“Developers say that we are over-precautionary in our approach. We would argue that Ørsted urgently needs to find evidence that its approach to compensation works, and that it is based on science. We believe there is little or no evidence that what they have proposed will work for kittiwakes. One of the things that the Sector Deal is expected to address is barriers to growth, and we are hopeful it will provide a platform for urgent action so issues like these are addressed.”
OWJ asked Ørsted and Vattenfall detailed questions about the compensation measures they proposed. In response, a spokesperson for Vattenfall told OWJ, “We have worked closely with our stakeholders from the outset of the process to understand the key issues and put forward the best possible design of Norfolk Vanguard.
“The potential impacts have been fully assessed and a number of key mitigations have been built into the project, following consultation with stakeholders. These include removal of the smallest turbines from the design envelope, changes to the proposed project layout, as well as a commitment to lift hub heights to allow migratory birds more space to fly below the turbine blades.
“We will continue this collaboration as we look to deliver a project that can make a significant contribution to the UK’s future energy needs to tackle climate change.”
Vattenfall will not need to implement the compensation measure it proposed because the Secretary of State decided that it didn’t give rise to any ‘adverse effects’ in the terms of impacts on SPAs or SACs. He decided that the mitigation measures the company plans to put in place were sufficient to avoid any adverse effects.
However, for Ørsted and Hornsea Project Three, the jury is still out insofar as the Secretary of State has issued his ‘minded to’ letter. This indicates that the Secretary of State has concluded that the scheme cannot avoid an adverse effect on the kittiwake SPA on the Yorkshire coast.
“It indicates that the Secretary of State has not yet seen sufficient evidence from Ørsted that their proposed compensation measures will work,” Mr Dodd said. “This is why Ørsted has been asked to provide more information by the end of September. There is then likely to be a short consultation with stakeholders on the company’s new information, with the Secretary of State making his final decision by 31 December 2020.”
Ørsted head of UK market development, consenting and external affairs Benj Sykes told the EAC inquiry, “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.
That work “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 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,” Mr Sykes said.
In its evidence to the EAC, the RSPB noted that the 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 a March 2020 policy paper, BEIS said the government “will work collaboratively with the sector and wider stakeholders to address strategic deployment issues… including cumulative environmental impacts.” It noted that the fast pace of deployment of offshore wind “drives the need to better understand cumulative impacts” including on birds and other wildlife.
As a project of overriding public interest, which is of strategic importance to the UK, it seems likely that Hornsea Project Three will be given the go ahead in December. But as EAC member Robert Goodwill MP said when summarizing evidence heard by the EAC, “I think it is clear from what we have heard that we need more information about the effect on seabirds.”