The Best Of Both Worlds: Wind And Whales
Offshore wind power development offers a clean, renewable alternative to fossil fuels. At the same time, this technology poses dangers to marine wildlife. Seabirds collide with or are displaced by turbines. The noise from pile driving and seismic air gun surveys affects cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises.) Currently, in the U.S., there is just one 30-watt installation in Rhode Island online. But since there are over 25,000 megawatts of wind power generation in various stages of planning, we urgently need a better way to protect marine animal welfare.
A variety of legislation governs permitting for wind energy projects. These laws impose requirements for complex and lengthy environmental impact analyses. It’s not unusual for a complete review to take seven to 10 years. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) generally has the lead oversight role for offshore projects. The agency has created portals to gather relevant information for project planning such as spatial data on marine animal distributions and locations of shipping and military traffic. However, this data isn’t enough to evaluate the potential hazards to wildlife.
To remedy this deficiency, the authors of this study borrowed a tool from economics called tradeoff analysis. Economists originally created tradeoff analysis to measure the risk-return tradeoff for financial portfolios. In this context, the tradeoff is between the value of wildlife conservation and the value of energy development. The mid-Atlantic region served as a case study area for this project.
The result was a model for decision support that optimizes the tradeoffs between industry profits and marine animal welfare. Each location generates a tradeoff plot where the axes measure profitability and species conservation success. The software created from this research is open source and available freely to any interested party. Model inputs include offshore wind energy and seabird sensitivity over space and cetacean sensitivity over space and time. Industry profitability is a function of transmission distance and wind availability.
The final outputs are interactive maps that can display two sets of information. One set shows the locations which will be the most profitable for industry while causing the least harm to seabirds. The other displays locations by their potential for cetacean harm across months. This information allows wind generation sites to be located where they will minimize long-term impacts on seabirds from ongoing operations. It also lets companies plan acoustically intense activities when cetaceans aren’t present. For the mid-Atlantic region, the best sites to maximize profitability while minimizing seabird disturbance tended to be well offshore or more to the south.
Clean, renewable wind energy is part of our green future. But deciding how much industry profitability should be sacrificed for species conservation is a societal decision involving industry, government regulators and other stakeholders. Animal advocates involved in marine conservation can use this study to weigh in on the debate. They can urge the use of this software tool, or something similar, to quantify the impacts of wind energy development on the lives and welfare of the affected animals, and hold governments and companies accountable publicly based on real data.