The RSPB has for years been considered a strong ally of the wind industry and has stated that wind power has the greatest potential of all renewable technologies to significantly help combat climate change in the UK over the coming decade. Moreover, the group is involved with a renewable electricity product -- RSPB Energy -- which includes power from wind farms.
But its latest and much publicised stance would appear to be a warning shot across the bows of the UK's plans to develop larger wind sites farther offshore. The RSPB wants the government to conduct more thorough assessments of the potential impacts of wind power stations on bird habitats and to protect areas where wind turbines could pose a significant threat to wildlife.
Many in Britain's wind industry believe the RSPB chose to voice its concerns so publicly via the media to keep its members happy. The comments received wide coverage days before the RSPB's Mark Avery spoke to an offshore conference organised by the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) held in London last month. BWEA chief executive Marcus Rand says the RSPB has privately admitted it is under pressure from a vocal minority within its membership to take a more outspoken position on wind energy.
Avery agrees that the RSPB is accused by some of its members of giving the wind industry an "easy time," but he claims he is used to being attacked from both sides of the debate.
He targets his main criticism at the government for failing to identify areas that should be off-limits to wind energy due to their importance for wildlife. "Urgent research is needed into the locations, numbers and movements of birds around our coasts to help us understand the potential impacts," he says. "If we are to avoid expensive and time consuming legal battles, the government needs to do more to understand where there might be problems and to steer wind farm developments away from such areas."
No to all
Of particular concern to the UK industry is the RSPB's claim that "virtually all" the 15 sites licensed for the country's second round of offshore wind development -- for a combined capacity of 5400-7200 MW (Windpower Monthly, March 2004) -- are in areas identified by English Nature as "potentially being of international importance for birds."
These wind farms will be located at least five to eight miles from shore in three areas of shallow water -- the Greater Wash and the outer Thames Estuary of the east of England and an area off the northwest coast. The RSPB is calling for detailed ecological surveys of the areas and for legal protection for those that qualify for such treatment under European law.
Avery told the BWEA offshore conference that three sites of potential development exemplify his worries: Shell Flat off Blackpool in the north-west, the Isle of Lewis in the Western Isles, Scotland, and the outer Thames River in the south-east of England.
At Shell Flat, a consent application for three projects from round-one of government funding, totalling 90 turbines, has been lodged by developers Shell Renewables, Danish utility Elsam and Celt Power -- a joint venture of Scottish Power and Tomen of Japan. According to Avery, Shell Flat should be designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA) under European law due to large numbers of wintering common scoters, a salt water duck that is on the "red list" of species of conservation concern. "The UK government has not got round to designating SPAs at sea," he says.
Offshore wind developers AMEC and British Energy (Britain's nuclear generator), are developing an onshore wind farm on Lewis, which has designations as a Ramsar site -- a wetland of importance for birds, Special Area of Conservation and a SPA. RSPB says the area has important populations of golden plover, dunlin, red-throated diver, black-throated diver, golden eagle, merlin and greenshank.
In the outer Thames, four projects totalling over 1800 MW won site licences in December. Here, Avery warns that development could threaten large populations of red-throated diver. "It is looking as though the outer Thames Estuary is of sufficient wildlife importance that the UK will have to designate it as an SPA," he says.
The strategic environmental assessment (SEA) that the government conducted of the three strategic round-two offshore areas is unsatisfactory, says Avery. In addition to calling for the identification and protection of important wildlife sites, Avery says the RSPB would like to see research into the impact of wind farms once built. "With more information, we can move towards a set of clearer guidelines."
We need to learn
From the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), Caroline Roberts emphasises that the government has taken a precautionary approach to preparing SEAs, choosing to carefully proceed with offshore wind, which will make an important contribution to its renewables targets. Rather than wait for years while the impacts of a few pilot scale developments were quantified, the DTI had decided to "proceed on a precautionary basis, learning as we go along, so that future decision making is informed by what has happened so far," she says. "In order to learn, we need to get wind farms in the water."
Roberts also points out that the government has imposed "no-go areas" in the second round of development. "We cut out areas which had the most likely potential sensitivity to offshore wind development." These included a large coastal strip of between eight and 13 kilometres where impacts on birds and visual amenity were likely to be most significant, she added.
Marcus Trinick from legal firm Bond Pearce, which has specialist expertise in permitting of wind plant, calls the RSPB's action in seeking publicity "unnecessary and unhelpful." The industry needs to work more closely with conservation bodies in an atmosphere of trust, he says. "That is why it is so disappointing that RSPB should have gone into print saying most round-two sites will be unacceptable because of bird populations, which, thanks to the industry and at the industry's cost, are being discovered."
BWEA points out that the greatest threat to bird populations is climate change. Birds are also more in danger from colliding with overhead power lines, or being eaten by domestic cats or hit by vehicles than they are from wind turbines. Care is taken by developers to avoid unnecessary disturbance during sensitive times, such as the breeding season, the BWEA says, adding that it is common for larger wind farms to be built over several seasons to minimise impacts.
On its website, the RSPB maintains that appropriately sited wind farms do not pose a significant hazard for birds. The society has objected to 27 proposals, onshore and offshore, between 1998 and 2003.