How to Account for Offshore Wind Impacts on Oceanic Wildlife? Make a Plan.

As wind energy develops in the Atlantic Ocean, researchers are working together to protect wildlife.

Wind Turbine at coastal Banqui Bay
Credit: Wayne S. Grazio/Flickr

Solutions Climate Wildlife

Offshore wind turbines have become a major element of advancing renewable energy goals, but we still have a lot to learn about how these structures will affect the hundreds of marine species that will have to interact with them. As government agencies, nonprofits, researchers and industry representatives rush to document their scientific observations, one major hurdle looms over their efforts: These disparate groups might not traditionally talk to each other — let alone use the same timetables, technology or terminology.

Enter the Integrated Science Plan for Offshore Wind, Wildlife and Habitat in U.S. Atlantic Waters. Released earlier this year, this first-of-its-kind effort aims to provide a common framework and system to fill the gaps in our knowledge and secure a future for both wind power and ocean species.

The plan makes a striking argument for setting up a coordinated network up and down the East Coast to observe and study the organisms found in and around offshore wind farms.

The result of two years of research and a public-comment period, the plan was developed by the Regional Wildlife Science Collaborative for Offshore Wind, a coalition led by 19 offshore wind companies, 14 environmental nonprofits, 12 coastal states, and eight federal entities. It emphasizes the need for consistent funding, standardized language and current resource lists, with shared expertise from seven subcommittees, all in an effort to address wind development off the Atlantic coast of the U.S.

RWSC says all creatures — from the biggest whales to the smallest fish — stand to benefit from the plan.

“What it signals to the general public is that scientists and funding entities are interested in answering these questions and solving these problems,” says Emily Shumchenia, director of RWSC. “And it provides a plan and a way to do that in a systematic and organized way to use public funds and private funds as efficiently as we can — and as quickly as we can — to get the answers to some of these questions.”

Collecting and Understanding Data

Although offshore wind energy is a relatively new industry, we already know some details about how it affects ocean organisms. As on land, birds and offshore migratory bats can fatally collide with turbine blades. The presence of offshore wind construction and operations can cause stress for marine mammals like whales and dolphins, while artificial reefs created by offshore wind infrastructure may attract sea turtles, bringing them into conflict with commercial fisheries. Electromagnetic fields around offshore wind power cables may affect the electro-receptive organs of sharks and rays, potentially causing changes in behavior. And sediment stirred up by pile driving, a stage of construction when a hydraulic hammer pounds turbine support structures into the seafloor, leaves little room in the water for visibility and oxygen. When that sediment settles, eggs and larvae may be buried underneath.

Offshore wind could bring other threats, such as habitat deterioration or destruction, or potential introduction of nonnative species.

RWSC’s science plan addresses the potential to understand these and other risks, and not just on a site-by-site basis, as has traditionally been the case. Its data-collection toolbox allows participants to combine local information with collaborative efforts across regions.

“Sometimes there are projects that are ongoing, let’s say in Maine, and there might be similar projects in Maryland,” says Nikelene Mclean, coordinator of the RWSC habitat and ecosystem subcommittee. “It’s really important for us to be able to keep tabs on all of the research that’s ongoing and to be able to engage with all of these entities.”

That research takes numerous forms: Visual aerial surveys and underwater microphones monitor marine mammals both above and below the waves. Automated radio telemetry tagging records signals from radio transmitters to detect smaller species like birds and bats, while environmental DNA can help determine the abundance of fish.

Offshore wind companies are already collecting oceanographic data with assistance from the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System. And Mclean’s habitat and ecosystem subcommittee is working on major projects determining how to best map hard bottom habitat and deep-sea corals, as well as producing a regional habitat map from Maine to Florida.

The science plan also looks to the future, with plans to evaluate new technologies in the works for monitoring and mitigation purposes, from uncrewed aerial vehicles and thermal cameras to artificially intelligent image classification and bubble curtains that absorb sound energy during turbine construction.

“Once we start having large-scale wind farms constructed and in existence, I think we’ll start to see a shift to different types of data collection,” says Shumchenia. “Again, still doing that baseline monitoring for who’s in the area and what they’re doing — but perhaps starting to look at direct impact assessment and studies that are just a little bit more targeted.”

Responsible Development From Coast to Coast

Implementing and tracking the plan’s contents and progress remains an ongoing process. Subcommittees come together at regular intervals to discuss updates, with meetings open to the public. RWSC posts shared files and a searchable research database online for anyone to access. And as a living document, RWSC experts will revise the plan every five years as new information and data becomes available.

Part of that new information may relate to offshore wind development in general. While the federal government intends to deploy 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy in the U.S. by 2030, achieving that goal was delayed last year when several offshore wind companies and developers canceled contracts. But progress is still possible — many offshore wind leases remain active along the East Coast, and the U.S. Department of the Interior recently approved two offshore wind farms off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.

New York, in particular, stands out as a leader in offshore wind, although three projects were canceled in April. Just before that the country’s first commercial offshore wind farm opened near Montauk, with the capacity to power over 70,000 homes on Long Island. Other states are following in New York’s footsteps; New Jersey recently announced $3.7 million in funding to study the effects of offshore wind on marine mammals, other wildlife and the environment.

New York was the first state to mandate that offshore wind projects contribute $10,000 per megawatt toward regional research, says Kate McClellan Press, a senior project manager with the environmental research team at New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, a founding member of RWSC and a member on its steering committee this year.

“We have seen New Jersey put that requirement into their contracts, as well as some other states who have offshore wind solicitation coming, so it’s exciting to see some of the standards that New York has developed be adopted by other states,” says McClellan Press.

Those working in other parts of the United States share the science plan’s overarching goal to help advance environmentally responsible offshore wind through research and data collection. For instance, as California finalizes its Offshore Wind Strategic Plan and invests $4.59 billion in transmission lines to transport offshore wind energy to major metropolitan areas, the environmental nonprofit Point Blue Conservation Science has released its own updated report about where to best site the state’s offshore wind for maximum energy potential and minimum environmental impact.

According to Cotton Rockwood, senior marine ecologist with Point Blue’s California Current Group, the report — for which he served as lead author — was not necessarily spurred by the East Coast plan, but it does share similar sentiments regarding regional collaboration. And the California Ocean Protection Council is spearheading an effort to establish best practices and guidelines with scientific experts for offshore wind development, echoing the structure of RWSC.

“It’s important to make sure that there are focused components of a broader effort like the RWSC to address the West Coast versus other regions,” Rockwood says. For example, the geography of the West Coast makes the use of floating offshore wind turbines more feasible. “That’s a big difference in and of itself,” he adds.

Climate Change Still on Top

Compared to the rest of the world, U.S. offshore wind farms are lagging at 13th place as of 2023. Experts say one of the reasons for this is the continued use of barges for transporting turbine blades, as opposed to specialized wind turbine installation vessels the country has yet to finish building. On the bright side, the delay in deployment may allow U.S. wind farms to take advantage of data from elsewhere, including information on wildlife impacts.

“There’s a lot of offshore wind that’s been developed in the North Sea and the United Kingdom and elsewhere,” says Rockwood. “We can see the results of the studies that have happened there, and the reality is that there can be impacts, but for the most part, they appear to be quite minimal.”

Understanding the intensity of offshore wind impacts remains a priority in a world exacerbated by global warming. For example, RWSC’s plan recommends collecting data on a host of factors related to offshore wind infrastructure, from food availability and water quality to wave effects and light penetration. And while climate change does modify a great many of these characteristics, the lines between the climate crisis and offshore wind can often turn blurry.

When humpback whales began stranding and dying in greater numbers along East Coast shorelines last year, many mistakenly claimed it was due to offshore wind operations. In truth, the whales had been moving closer to shore in search of prey like menhaden fish whose distribution had shifted in response to warming temperatures, according to NOAA. This put the whales in the path of shipping lanes and fishing fleets, which brought at least 40% of attributable deaths — many whale bodies were too decomposed for forensic analysis. The false claim that offshore wind structures kill whales, which many attribute to misinformation from fossil-fuel industry-linked groups — compared to the actual leading cause of vessel strikes — serves only to demonstrate how the two issues can become entangled.

“We do always have to think about the potential impacts of offshore wind in the context of a dynamic ocean environment, and climate is one of those factors,” says McClellan Press. “We are seeing changing ocean temperatures and differences in oceanographic processes, and that is happening at the same time as other industries are operating in the ocean and as offshore wind is being developed.”

In addition, scientists observe the interlink between climate change and offshore wind more acutely on the sub-regional level. The Gulf of Maine, which is warming faster than 99% of the global ocean, serves as a key feeding habitat for critically endangered North Atlantic right whales, of whom fewer than 400 remain. As the whales’ preferred prey — copepod crustaceans — shift their distribution in response to the heat, the whales must change the timing of their movements to follow them.

At the same time, few federal buoys collect data in the offshore wind planning area of the Gulf, and once development ramps up, threats like noise exposure and entanglement in fishing gear attached to structures could make life even harder for the whales. So the combined impacts of offshore wind and climate change could result in an environmental “double whammy.”

Still, there’s hope on the horizon: if a responsible offshore wind industry can safeguard the ocean and its inhabitants, then the science plan will have done what it set out to do.

“It’s really a landmark study, and there hasn’t been a publication of this caliber,” says Mclean. “It provides a one-stop-shop for the data and research that’s needed to ensure that offshore wind development is done in a manner that is not detrimental to the wildlife and the ecosystems upon which they depend.”

This article first appeared on The Revelator and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Support Us

Independent Journalism Needs You

Donate » -opens in new tab. Donate via PayPal More options »