UK utility Centrica could have avoided years of planning work and saved millions of pounds on its failed application to build the Docking Shoal offshore wind farm if the UK government had responded sooner to calls for a better understanding of the marine environment, it has been claimed.
Centrica's application for planning consent for the 540MW project - in the Greater Wash area of the North Sea off England's east coast - was turned down by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (Decc) in July on the grounds that the project would kill an unacceptable number of birds (mainly sandwich terns) that breed on the sandbanks of the Greater Wash.
Decc undertook a cumulative impact assessment (CIA) on wildlife from Docking Shoal and the two projects that it did approve - Centrica's 580MW Race Bank and Warwick Energy's 560MW Dudgeon wind farm - and concluded that all three projects would kill too many birds.
The department rejected Docking Shoal because the number of fatalities that would result from its construction would have been higher than from Race Bank and Dudgeon, because Docking Shoal's proposed site is closer to the birds' breeding grounds.
Centrica has yet to decide whether it will appeal the Docking Shoal decision, but more distressing than the decision itself, a spokesman said, was the time that Decc took to reach it: Centrica has spent three and a half years and £10 million on planning and developing the project.
"Clearly there was going to be a cumulative impact effect on some wind farms in the area," he said. "If cumulative impact was such a concern, did they (Decc) have to wait three and a half years to tell us that?"
The culpability of the UK government in Docking Shoal's failed application was also attested to by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).
The RSPB welcomed Decc's decision to strike a balance between offshore wind power and its effect on wildlife, but suggested that a poor understanding of the marine environment when the Docking Shoal site was originally leased under the Crown Estate's second round of tenders was the root cause of the project's failure.
"We are working in a data-poor environment and that's where Docking Shoal has suffered," said RSPB East of England conservation officer Amy Crossley.
"Had the government invested, as we believe it should have done, in comprehensive surveys of our marine environment aimed at finding most sensitive areas for marine wildlife at the start of the offshore programme, Docking Shoal may not have been in this position," she added. "As the more detailed environmental impact assessments were carried out, we have discovered information about marine wildlife that we didn't previously know: for example that sandwich terns use the sandbanks in the Greater Wash very heavily and there is significant potential for collision with turbine blades."
Round three wind farms, added Crossley, would be in a less precarious position than round one and two sites because developers have been awarded zones rather than specific sites, and can therefore use early surveys to determine the location of projects for minimal environmental impacts. Being further out to sea, they will have less effect on breeding grounds but instead affect migratory species.
RenewableUK offshore wind development manager Paul Reynolds said uncertainty will have implications for both the second and third round of offshore projects around the UK. Some developers, he pointed out, had been asked to consider the impact on birds migrating from as far as Canada. And with the construction of some Round 3 zones taking up to 15 years, it is unclear whether construction impacts would need to be considered for the entire period or just the first few.
RenewableUK has commissioned a project to develop guiding principles for undertaking CIAs, but the uncertainty surrounding CIA thresholds is still a "big concern" for industry, said Reynolds.