How can we make wind energy safe for marine animals and birds?

Published on
October 11, 2022

Wind turbines on the North Sea are to become the Netherlands’ key energy source. This development is not without risks for the animals that live in and above the water. ‘Everything we do on the North Sea has ecological impact’, Josien Steenbergen of Wageningen Marine Research underscores. ‘It is up to us, to do it as responsibly as possible.’

Offshore wind parks must provide some 8.5 per cent of energy in the Netherlands by 2030. That is five-fold the amount currently produced. This increase will cause major changes for the North Sea and its inhabitants. Wageningen Marine Research studies what consequences this scaling-up may have. More knowledge enables the government and the wind energy sector to make more substantiated decisions on, for example, locations for wind parks and the best season for construction activities.

- Unfortunately, your cookie settings do not allow videos to be displayed. - check your settings

Risks to bats and porpoises

Some bird species, such as the gannet, avoid wind parks. This could cause birds to lose a habitat where they would hunt or rest. ‘And there is, of course, the risk of collisions’, says Wageningen Marine Research research coordinator for Wind at Sea Josien Steenbergen. Previous research conducted by the Wageningen institute already demonstrated that wind turbines disrupt bat migration. Nathusius’ pipistrelle is known to cross the North Sea between the United Kingdom and the Netherlands in the spring and autumn. Turbines are currently switched off during the migrating season.

The construction of wind turbines also impacts the environment. Porpoises and seals have sensitive hearing that could be permanently damaged by the noise of pile driving during construction. In collaboration with TNO, Wageningen Marine Research studies the extent of the disruption. Based on the results of this research, measures may be taken. Screens of air bubbles can be deployed to dampen the noise.

The Netherlands are making good progress

The construction of wind parks does more than just pose risks. The massive rocks that are used to keep the turbines anchored are a fertile habitat for crustaceans and, thus, provide enrichment for the North Sea. Scientists are investigating whether oyster reefs could be placed in between the turbines.

‘The North Sea’s ecology is very complex, much like the interaction between humans and that ecology’, Steenbergen states. Thus, research takes time. In the Netherlands, research is centralised through large programmes such as WOZEP and MONS, through which the Netherlands is making good progress. ‘The question remains whether we will be on time’, Steenbergen adds. ‘And: how do we ensure that new insights are included in the decision-making process around wind at sea?’