Environmentalist fears put to rest

A wealth of collected evidence on the environmental impact of offshore wind plant continues to demonstrate that wind turbines at sea are no danger to their surroundings. "We have counted all the birds and measured the whales singing," said Fritz Vahrenholt of German wind turbine manufacturer Repower at October's Copenhagen Offshore Wind conference. "Now it is time for the politicians to act."

At least some researchers have come to the same conclusion after a three-year study sponsored by the Concerted Action for Offshore Wind Energy Deployment (COD) group, sponsored by the EU. COD analysed over 200 studies from member states regarding planning approaches to offshore wind, roadblocks to integrating offshore wind to national and regional grids and environmental effects of offshore development.

COD's goal, according to project manager Ruud de Bruijne of Dutch agency SenterNovem, was to advance offshore wind from a state of "great potential" in many nations to that of an actual contributor in lowering carbon dioxide emissions and slowing global warming in Europe. A database pooling knowledge gained by the early actors of offshore wind power will help avoid duplication, de Bruijne said, especially where environmental effects and mitigation options are concerned.

The data has come from a small pool of offshore projects online, cautioned de Bruijne, but in the majority of cases, environmental impacts on marine mammals, fish, benthos and bird populations are generally lower than postulated by environmental activists. When documented, the worst effects occur during site construction, but fade away after turbines are online. Fish and seafloor crustacean populations can even be positively affected if post-construction traffic to wind farms is curtailed.

"A follow-up of COD's work on environmental issues is highly recommended, even though substantial negative impact so far has not been demonstrated," the COD report concludes. The organisation still recommends careful site selection as the easiest way to avoid disruption to migrating bird flocks or fish spawning grounds.

Mainstream environmental groups seem to be getting the message that offshore wind is to be welcomed, not feared. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) gave it a ringing endorsement at the Copenhagen conference. The organisation's Jan Philippe den Ruyter said that while concerns and mitigating actions cannot be ignored, the need to speed up action against global warming makes offshore wind one of the best and most realistic renewable energy options. In its 2005 policy statement, WWF calls for Europe to build 100 GW of onshore and 50 GW of offshore wind to meet the region's CO2 reduction goals.

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