North Sea Foundation Analysis: potential risks to North Sea nature posed by offshore wind energy

Research by the North Sea Foundation shows that ecological knowledge development is increasingly lagging behind the acceleration of the energy transition. This report highlights the benefits and risks of large-scale roll out of offshore wind farms as it is becoming increasingly likely that the ambition for wind at sea will clash with the ecological carrying capacity of the North Sea.

The North Sea Foundation fears a scenario in which protecting North Sea nature and meeting climate targets come into confrontation with one another. In the coming year, policy to scale up the roll-out of offshore wind energy beyond 2030 will be formulated. However, many ecological studies have not yet begun and their results cannot therefore be taken into account. There is still a lack of knowledge regarding the ecological risks of large-scale rollout of offshore wind farms, particularly in combination with other pressures such as oil, gas, shipping, sand extraction and fishing. It is becoming increasingly likely that the ambition for wind at sea will no longer fit within the ecological carrying capacity of the North Sea. This is evident from a report published today by the North Sea Foundation.

In order to meet the climate targets of the Paris Agreement, many wind farms will be built in the North Sea over the next few years. The Dutch government is focusing on wind energy at sea in order to meet their 2030 target of reducing 55% of CO2 emissions compared to 1990. Currently, wind farms in the Dutch North Sea have a capacity of 2.5 gigawatts. By 2030, this is projected to increase to approximately 21.5 gigawatts.

North Sea Foundation windpark image copyright

Image: the North Sea Foundation©

"For a healthy North Sea, it is important that climate change and the impoverishment of North Sea nature are addressed," explains Ewout van Galen of the North Sea Foundation. "The North Sea environment is impoverished. The Netherlands actually had to achieve 'good environmental status' by 2020: a state in which the sea is clean, healthy and productive, with a large ecological diversity and only sustainable use. For example, some sea bird populations are now doing worse and the seabed is still being substantially disturbed."

According to the North Sea Foundation, offshore wind farms have advantages for underwater nature. There is relatively more peace and space for nature because of a ban on bottom trawling within wind farms. In addition, Dutch wind farms are not built in the most ecologically valuable areas, such as the Klaverbank and the Frisian Front — providing new opportunities for nature to develop there.

Despite these benefits, wind farms also bring ecological risks — such as loss of habitat, collisions and underwater noise. The government has already identified a number of risks and associated measures to reduce them: for example, legally defined limits have been set for pile-driving noise and, where possible, the blades are turned more slowly during mass bird migration. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of missing knowledge regarding the effects of offshore wind developments on the North Sea environment. Thanks to the North Sea Agreement concluded last year, the government is setting up a large-scale ecological monitoring and research programme (MONS). The aim of this programme is to develop and make available the necessary knowledge to ensure that the use of the increasingly crowded North Sea stays within the ecological carrying capacity.

According to Stichting De Noordzee, extra attention is needed for the accumulating effects.

Van Galen explains: "The effect of one wind farm on nature is very different from the effects of ten wind farms. On top of that, neighbouring countries are also building wind farms with potential effects on our natural environment. And even before the advent of wind at sea, the North Sea was busy. Some risks, such as effects on wind, currents and stratification of the water, can only be properly investigated during the upscaling of wind at sea. This increases the chance that it will soon simply be unknown whether the rollout of wind at sea still fits within the ecological boundaries of the North Sea."

Ewout van Galen makes some recommendations: "We must avoid a situation where the protection of North Sea nature and the achievement of climate targets get in the way of each other. For example, can the possible loss of a bird species be a reason to build a wind farm or not? In order to strengthen nature as a whole, it is first of all necessary to protect the valuable North Sea nature areas as soon as possible. Also, research into the ecological risks must be accelerated and increased. In addition, there must be room in the planning for research results to be included before further scaling-up takes place. This is the only way we can combat climate change and protect the North Sea environment."


Download 'Roll out Wind at Sea with Respect for Nature' (EN)

Download 'Roll out Wind at Sea with Respect for Nature' (NL)


There are currently no items in this folder.