The growing potential of maritime spatial planning

Europe's sea basins host a number of activities that are important to the EU's economy. So how will the major increases in offshore wind planned by 2020 fit into the marine mix? This article explains how cooperative planning can anticipate and head off potential conflicts

With its major potential for offshore wind, the Baltic basin is moving to improve MSP
With its major potential for offshore wind, the Baltic basin is moving to improve MSP

The European offshore wind industry has grown rapidly over the past decade: by the end of June 2012 there was 4.34GW of offshore capacity installed in 56 wind farms across ten European countries. Offshore wind now uses about 2,400 square kilometres of sea space but by 2020 this could expand to 25,000 to accommodate the 43GW in EU member states’ National Renewable Energy Action Plans. With this tenfold increase, offshore wind is expected to meet 4 per cent of total EU electricity demand by 2020.

Ambition to decarbonise the European energy system further beyond 2020 will require additional offshore renewable growth; in all, there are development plans for 140GW of offshore wind projects in European sea basins. This growth will not be distributed evenly as different physical characteristics (size of the sea basin, average depth and marine resources) and human activities shape the demand for sea space.  

Ecosystem-based approach

European sea basins host a number of activities and, as such, provide important economic and social benefits to citizens not only in Europe but worldwide. As newcomers, offshore renewables — notably wind but also wave and tidal — are competing with traditional sea users and other emerging activities. Many of these activities, such as fisheries, shipping, cables and pipelines, and coastal tourism are also expected to increase significantly so it is becoming urgent to manage the seas efficiently and effectively.

Since all these activities have an impact on the marine environment, adverse effects have to be carefully considered and monitored. An ecosystem-based approach is required, which puts biodiversity commitments at the heart of planning and sea-use management. This is the essence of maritime spatial planning (MSP).

The European Commission’s Communication on MSP, published in 2010, described it as "a process of analysing and allocating the spatial and temporal distribution of human activities in marine areas to achieve ecological, economic and social objectives". MSP creates a framework for discussion to improve decision-making between the competing human activities at sea, as well as managing their impact on the marine environment. Its objective is to balance sectoral interests and promote sustainable use of marine resources.

MSP allows offshore wind farm developers to know where they can site farms to minimise conflict while harvesting as much energy as possible. A cooperative approach to MSP would allow cross-border projects, such as offshore grids, to be coordinated quickly. Offshore wind has been driving the MSP process, which will prompt EU member states to think about how to deal with their sea space and how to take advantage of the economic opportunities it offers.

The role of shipping

In terms of sea space, shipping clearly holds an important place. The sector expects moderate growth due to the regional economy as well as the drive to move goods transport from road to sea to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The southern part of the North Sea, from south-west England along the coast of the Netherlands and Germany, has the highest level of shipping in Europe. This is an area where shipping is expected to increase and where the largest European ports and harbours are built. Future growth entails upgrading exisiting routes and establishing new ones, and expanding safety zones along certain routes. Safety zones provide sufficient space for emergency manoeuvres and unforeseen anchorage requirements.

Shipping lanes are regulated at an international level by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). The economic value of shipping means navigation and routes are considered as fixed and reserved areas that benefit from priority access to sea space, although the IMO can review routes on request. But at a national level this can be challenged. In the Netherlands, for example, an evaluation concluded it was more cost-effective to divert shipping than to site wind arrays further out at sea. So, instead of placing wind farms around existing planning constraints, these constraints could be questioned.

In some sea basins, such as the North and the Baltic, where traditional users are very active, there is still tremendous potential for renewable energy; some 58% of planned offshore wind projects are in the North Sea. North Sea countries are the most advanced in terms of deployment and sectoral zoning of offshore renewables, and MSP exercises. MSP policies and legal frameworks have progressed well over the past decade in this sea basin. Baltic countries are taking steps to improve MSP.

For offshore renewables, MSP brings a number of advantages, from reducing risk for developers and boosting investment opportunities, to clearer permitting and licensing. For example, MSP has been used extensively to reduce and manage sector conflicts; consulting all stakeholders early can pre-empt opposition during a wind farm’s consenting phase.

However, at national level, MSP cannot address cooperation with neighbouring countries. The limits of national legislation mean MSP can only encourage decision makers to take neighbours’ maritime activities and spatial plans into account. For offshore renewables, transnational MSP is particularly relevant for cross-border projects to reduce planning risks for developers, expand opportunities for planning and deployment, and to save costs by sharing grid infrastructure.  

Regional forums

For now, a regional approach based on the different sea basins seems feasible for cross-border MSP. Regional forums could help coordinate a number of relevant factors, including planning time frames, offshore grid infrastructure and management measures including permitting. There are a number of regional sea working groups and conventions leading the way on this, such as the HELCOM-VASAB Working Group on MSP in the Baltic.

This approach is also supported by the SEANERGY 2020 project, funded by the EU Intelligent Energy Europe programme. The project’s core objective was to facilitate offshore renewables deployment through MSP. Its geographical scope included four sea basins: the Baltic, North and Irish seas, and the Atlantic coast.

In short, the many different users of European seas create a complex spatial pattern of activities and val-ues, and with many examples of overlapping sea-use functions, there is not a one-to-one relationship between the size of any particular sea use and the area available for off-shore renewables. The WINDSPEED project showed that, for central and southern North Sea basins, co-use opportunities exist for offshore wind, ship-ping and fisheries, and relocation can be sought for military areas.

MSP is valuable in identifying opportunities for compromise, relocation and sharing. It can not only simplify permitting and licensing, it can help avoid sectoral conflicts and therefore reduce delays and costs in building offshore wind farms.    

Dorina Iuga is senior project manager and Angeliki Koulouri is research officer at the European Wind Energy Association

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