Coalition calls for better marine planning to speed up offshore wind and protect nature

The Offshore Coalition for Energy and Nature (OCEaN) has called on EU member states and the European Commission to take action to ensure an "improved, robust and timely" marine spatial planning (MSP) process to speed up offshore wind and grid development while protecting nature.

An eco-system-based, integrated approach to marine spacial planning aids conservation and will speed up offshore wind development, the coation says (pic credit: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

OCEaN is a coalition of non-governmental organisations, wind industry players and transmission system operators from across Europe. It has outlined a list of principles and measures for member states (MSs) and the EC to adopt that it believes will "speed up offshore renewable energy, support the decision-making process for spatial allocation, and reduce investment risks and project delays".

The recommendations – announced at a joint conference on nature-positive offshore energy infrastructure hosted by the Renewables Grid Initiative (RGI) and WindEurope – are based on analyses of available MSP programmes in the EU conducted by WindEurope and fellow OCEaN members, along with conservation groups BirdLife and WWF.

Improving the use of an ecosystem-based, integrated planning approach in MSP to identify less sensitive areas suitable for energy infrastructure deployment and help reconcile any conflicting interests tops the list of priorities. Employing ecosystem-based planning promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way, it noted.

There is "considerable room for improvement" and a need to make the practical application of the ecosystem-based approach "clearer, faster, and comparable" across member states, it said. International guidance and increased cooperation between stakeholder groups, both at regional and national level, would allow national authorities to better include nature protection and address potential conflicts and synergies between the conservation of marine ecosystems and economic activities in their planning, the coalition stated.

Sensitivity mapping is also critical and should work alongside environmental and socio-economic assessments for spatial designation, while cross-border collaboration should be enabled, it said. "Sensitivity mapping tools can inform planning decisions, along with socio-economic assessments, in order to identify best-suited locations for nature protection and energy infrastructure and define mitigation and compensation measures," OCEaN said.

Transboundary cooperation

It calls on member states and the EC to facilitate sensitivity mapping across national, regional and sea-basin levels, with further tools to analyse socio-economic aspects explored. Similarly, it wants them to implement regional stakeholder cooperation to enable large-scale compensation, mitigation and restoration measures, as well as harmonised, cross-basin data sharing. "Sea basins should be treated as connected entities, creating an added value of basin-scale planning that must be considered," it said.

"Both, infrastructure and restoration need to be planned for entire sea basins, this will lead to optimisation of resources and space utilisation as well as stronger and more effective environmental protection," said Antonella Battaglini, CEO of the RGI.

There has been some progress on transboundary offshore renewable energy planning, OCEaN said. "However, efforts should be expanded to all offshore wind farms to ensure the continuity of ecological blue corridors and limit potential cumulative impacts along economic exclusive zones' (EEZ) borders," it added.

WIndEurope CEO Giles Dickson pointed out that by 2030, Europe wants offshore wind capacity to reach 165GW, up from just 30GW today (including the UK). "The European offshore wind industry is committed to deliver this expansion while protecting biodiversity and the marine environment," he said.

Reaching EU 2030 climate targets requires the allocation of less than 3% of European seas for offshore wind energy production, OCEaN said, so the benefit of planning at sea basin level is that member state contributions can be determined in the most efficient way.

Multi-use is vital

The coalition added that it is "of the utmost importance" that all member states start testing and implementing multi-use within offshore wind farms. "Two or more activities might take place alongside each other, thereby potentially optimising how we use space and mitigating overall environmental impacts of human activities."

But it warned: "In practice, regulatory and technical factors can be a hindrance, and overcoming such barriers requires early and active collaboration between all stakeholders."

In the meantime, member states need to "carefully consider" application of the imperative reason of overriding public interest (IROPI) test (contained in the Habitats Directive) on a case-by-case basis, after demonstrating such an exception's necessity and lack of alternatives, alongside mitigation and compensation measures. In cases of outstanding importance for the public, IROPI permits project development despite impacts on protected habitats or species, but OCEaN stressed this needs to be used carefully, with nature laws implemented to a high standard.

"We have to find ways to deliver the much needed renewable energy revolution in harmony with nature, for example so that offshore wind farms can coexist with our threatened marine wildlife. That's why we call on all governments to embrace this challenge and adopt the principles outlined by the OCEaN coalition," said Martin Harper, regional director of BirdLife Europe & Central Asia.

Improved and early-stage stakeholder involvement and the creation local community benefits will be critical throughout to garner greater community support for projects. A long-term "learning" planning system that can adapt as new insights emerge is also needed, OCEaN said.

This "enables planning reliability, increases planning efficiency, optimises overall resource and spatial use, and reduces impacts on nature," it added. "A learning planning system and adaptive management are essential for ecosystem protection and should be embedded in all MSPs."

It concluded: "MSPs must include clear conflict resolution mechanisms and should be legally-binding and state-led in order to better harmonise cross-sectoral policies and timelines. However, MSPs should be kept flexible enough for adaptive management to be implemented."