Investigating The Environmental Impact Of Offshore Wind Farms

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Despite my well-publicised love for offshore wind farms and wind technology in general, the reality is that pursuing such a technology to the detriment of the environment almost completely undermines the supposed benefits we reap from such renewable technologies.

A recent paper reviewed the potential impact of offshore wind farms on marine species, and makes several recommendations for future monitoring and assessment of offshore wind developments. It is one of few papers which measure the response of marine species to offshore wind farm construction and operation.2444187566_b52597b9a4_z

“As the number and size of offshore wind developments increases, there is a growing need to consider the consequences and cumulative impacts of these activities on marine species,” said Helen Bailey, lead author and research assistant professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. “It is essential to identify where whales, dolphins, and other species occur to help avoid adverse impacts and to continue to monitor their response to the construction and operation of wind turbines.”

A number of potential risks to local marine wildlife exist in the construction of wind farms, while eventually providing habitat for certain species, as wind farms create artificial reefs and increase food sources. As Bailey said, continual monitoring is necessary as we move forward with the proliferation of wind energy.

Among the potential risks, the report highlights the loud noise of pile driving to create the support for wind turbines that could possibly cause hearing damage to local wildlife, mask communication between species, or even disorient animals and fish as they move out of the area to avoid the noise.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that the most significant impact of offshore wind farms on marine mammals is the avoidance of construction noise,” said Bailey. “There needs to be a greater focus on assessing the longer-term impact of any behavioral responses.”

Unsurprisingly, there is also the possible danger of direct injury to animals by vessels during surveying and installation activities.

The report, “Assessing environmental impacts of offshore wind farms: lessons learned and recommendations for the future,” available at Aquatic Biosystems, reached four key lessons:

  1. Identifying the area over which biological effects may occur to inform baseline data collection and determining the connectivity between key populations and proposed wind energy sites
  2. The need to put impacts into a population level context to determine whether they are biologically significant
  3. Measuring responses to wind farm construction and operation to determine disturbance effects and avoidance responses
  4. Learn from other industries to inform risk assessments and the effectiveness of mitigation measures

“A critical element of wind energy planning is developing projects in such a way that we avoid or minimize negative environmental impacts those installations may cause,” said Tom Miller, director of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. “Making these decisions requires a year-round understanding of the species that frequent the area, particularly for protected species that are sensitive to sound, such as marine mammals.”

As one of the first papers to map the impact of offshore wind farm construction and operation on marine species, the authors of the report recommend that “strategically targeted data collection and modeling” is necessary moving forward, to determine long-term impacts, and to help regulators make decisions about wind farm locations — specifically in countries, such as the United States, where the offshore wind farm industry is still in its infancy.

The environmental impact of renewable energy is not a topic often raised within the industry, and is more often than not something thrown at the industry as an attempt to disrupt its growth. The most common accusation thrown at the wind and solar industry’s is the impact it has on birds — their deaths caused either by being thwacked out of the sky by a wind turbine or incinerated mid-flight by an overzealous solar panels.

However, as has been proved time and time again — and most recently by U.S. News & World Report — renewable energy’s impact on birds is relatively insignificant when you compare it to other energy generation technologies — such as coal.

bird deaths
Image Credit: U.S. News & World News

There should be necessary checks made when investigating a renewable energy technology’s deployment — rigorous scientific and environmental checks — but these checks will, in almost every situation, require very little in the way of adjustment for renewable energy developers to ensure their technology disrupts the local wildlife as little as possible.

Image Credit — Luc Van Braekel, via Flickr, Attribution 2.0 Generic

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Joshua S Hill

I'm a Christian, a nerd, a geek, and I believe that we're pretty quickly directing planet-Earth into hell in a handbasket! I also write for Fantasy Book Review (, and can be found writing articles for a variety of other sites. Check me out at for more.

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9 thoughts on “Investigating The Environmental Impact Of Offshore Wind Farms

  • Of course as we move toward deeper water and floating turbines, the offshore construction goes way down. I haven’t see the anchoring approach, but at large depth, I assume that they are not driving piles.

    • The chain attached to the turbine platform is hold by a tube that is lowered in the sea and water pumped out the tube is pushed into the sea bed by pressure of the seawater column above.
      When large wind farms will be fishing free zones, must be, sealive will get their free space zone. hope there will be a lot of free space zones for sealive in near future. cause this will mean lot of off shore wind power and a lot of fish.
      and I like that.

      • Exactly! No commercial fishing zones among floating turbines may be the only hope our oceans have. Pile-driving is a big part of offshore costs and so floating turbines will become the standard along the entire Eastern US seaboard full of ocean life.

        • If floating turbines ever take off, it would be mostly on the Western seaboard. First of all because it has better wind resources, but also because the East Coast is fairly shallow and as such would have a considerable monopile turbine industry by the time floating turbines come along. That established service industry would probably keep monopiles financially attractive for a long time.

          If you want to help marine ecosystems, monopiles are actually the better choice. They provide a no-go area for ships the same size a floating turbine does, but with the added benefit of an artificial reef (the monopile). Mooring cables support only a small number of bivalves while monopiles quickly become full fledged hatcheries for various fish and invertebrates.

          • Yes, the deeper Pacific coast requires floating turbines so post haste.
            But monopile foundation costs in Europe haven’t come down much and the complexity of assembling a turbine at sea means costs will always be more than double that on land. There’s a reason no offshore farms have been built in the US with cheaper electricity rates. But it is a world leader onshore.
            Floating turbines are already proving themselves with full-scaled test models. New technology takes some time but thousands of floating turbines a 100 miles off Long Island will one day power far more than NYC. And the thousands of anchor blocks can be shaped as starter-reefs.

    • However, floating turbines are still in their infancy. The technology is still years away from commercialisation and even when it arrives, conventional techniques will probably dominate nearshore construction for years to come due to economy of scale.

      Your reasoning is a lot like that of some nuclear optimists: ‘we don’t need to invest too much in nuclear reprocessing and waste disposal because reactors that can burn up waste are on their way’. And yes, that’s true. However, a waste-free future doesn’t mean we need to deal with the waste of today.

  • A year of disturbance when the wind farm is being built, against a minimum of 25 years of a de facto marine conservation zone? I’m all for minimising the disturbance, but overall marine wind farms must be a large plus for sea life.

    • not only that, the actual pile driving is one day per turbine, as fast as possible, not a whole year.

  • I assume that preparation for siting these takes in to consideration migratory routes of birds. Siting can make a big difference on the amount of bird mortality as seen the the worst case of Duke Energy’s Wyoming wind farm.

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