Rampion offshore wind farm

Wind-farm risk to birds is exaggerated, study suggests

Image credit: Josh Loeb

Conservationists were among the opponents of planned projects in Scotland which supporters say will boost economy and slash carbon emissions. Now research appears to show that rare birds could be far less affected than once thought.

The threat that fast-spinning blades at UK offshore wind farms pose to fragile colonies of protected seabirds has been massively exaggerated, new research appears to indicate.

A government-funded study spearheaded by the Offshore Renewables Joint Industry Programme combined human observer-based tracking of seabirds in the North Sea with a system that automatically mapped bird movements at a representative area of Vattenfall’s wind farm off the coast of Thanet over two years.

More than 600,000 videos were analysed by researchers looking for evidence of ‘bird strike’. Only 12,131 contained evidence of bird activity, and just six actual collisions with turbines were observed. The study may indicate that birds are better at noticing and avoiding the turbines than had previously been thought.

The research was commissioned by 11 leading offshore wind developers as well as The Crown Estate, The Crown Estate Scotland and Marine Scotland. It was supported with funding from Whitehall and was managed by the Carbon Trust.

A spokesperson for the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, said: “With wind power providing over 15 per cent of our electricity, todays research shows that the UKs Industrial Strategy is supporting the UKs role as a global leader in renewables.”

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) last year lost its long-running legal fight against plans for several major new windfarms in the Firth of Forth and Firth of Tay. Those plans also met with opposition from campaign group Scotland Against Spin, which claimed Scotlands wind energy policy is “unsustainable” and will give consumers poor value for money.

Species said by the RSPB to be at risk of falling victim to the blades include such iconic birds as puffins, gannets and kittiwakes. However, the NnG Offshore Wind Farm Coalition, which backs the moves in Fife and east-central Scotland, says the renewables infrastructure will bring a jobs boom and an “£827 million injection into our economy”.

The Crown Estate, which manages vast tracts of Britain’s seabed on behalf of the Queen, is considering leasing further sites for turbines to energy companies. Ambitious plans are said to be in the pipeline for a potential expansion of recently completed offshore wind farms such as Rampion, which lies eight miles off the coast of Brighton and which E&T visited yesterday.

Steve Johnson, the skipper of Channel Diver, which takes tourists on regular boat trips to see the facility, told E&T he had never witnessed birds being struck by turbine blades or seen any evidence of this having happened. “There’s talk that once it’s proved to be a success, they’re going to expand this windfarm,” he added.

Energy giant E.ON holds a 50 year lease on the area of the seabed where Rampion (pictured above) was built, but the design life of the turbines is 25 years at most, meaning that the site may need to be upgraded by 2043 if it is to continue generating electricity. The turbines were brought to Britain by sea from Denmark and were constructed using a crane on a huge ship with ‘legs’ that could stand on the seabed and be jacked up to make a platform. Around 100 specialist engineers lived on a special ‘floating hotel’ while working on the site, which is linked via subsea cables to a substation on land, where it feeds into the National Grid.

Britain’s burgeoning offshore wind capacity could increase five-fold by the 2030s, slashing carbon emissions while also reducing household energy bills, according to a recent analysis by the Aurora Energy Research consultancy.

Under current and announced funding arrangements, the UK’s wind capacity would hit 20-24GW by the mid-2020s. Capacity currently stands at around 6GW.

The UK government’s Industrial Strategy, published last year, gave a clear indication that the ruling Conservative Party backs expanding offshore wind. Onshore wind, by contrast, went entirely unmentioned in the document.

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