Scientists Dig Into Planning to Use Offshore Wind as Vehicle to Repair Ecosystem Damage
April 27, 2023
BRISTOL, R.I. — The first giant offshore wind project to rise from the Outer Continental Shelf off the New England shoreline will be greeted by its planners and creators with hope, plenty of questions, and a lot of trepidation.
Off to one side, in a process still vague and unformed, are people pushing the idea of using offshore wind as an opportunity to bring healing to broken ecosystems. It’s a good-news environmental story, but still new in the United States.
The concept, called net positive impact on biodiversity, would build into any offshore wind project additional systems or actions that correct environmental damage, above and beyond any damage caused by the wind facility itself.
The “above and beyond” is important because offshore wind developers already must follow a protocol called the “mitigation hierarchy,” which requires they avoid, minimize, or mitigate all harms done directly through the building and operation of their projects. But net positive impact for biodiversity, by definition, requires extra actions to solve environmental problems, at the wind farm or elsewhere.
Other names for the idea include “nature inclusive design” or, in maritime environments, “marine net gain.”
The idea of net positive impact (NPI) is rising to the surface of people’s thinking in the United States because of offshore wind’s potential.
“The reason we are talking about marine net gain is through the offshore wind industry,” said Tricia Jedele, Atlantic Coast offshore wind policy manager for The Nature Conservancy. In the United States, at least, “the topic is not coming up independently of offshore wind.”
How to create systems that lead to net positive impact on biodiversity was the topic of a conversation-rich symposium April 20 and 21 at Roger Williams University School of Law. Speakers included at least 40 scientists, environmentalists, and offshore wind developers from Rhode Island and elsewhere in the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, and The Netherlands.
The symposium was organized by Jedele and Julia Wyman, director of the RWU Marine Affairs Institute at the RWU School of Law.
The problem is, people don’t know exactly how to design NPI actions, how to fit them into existing regulatory schemes, and how to plan these corrective programs so they work cooperatively across separate wind projects or vast ecosystems.
Also, it’s difficult to plan mitigation projects in an ocean environment, which is dynamic and populated by species, both in the water and the air, that migrate far and wide, possibly feeding and reproducing far from the wind facilities that may do them harm.
Even so, the effort to activate net positive impacts are useful and important, said Drew Carey, vice president of the Americas for the Venterra Group, who, through his work, understands the seafloor off the New England coast and, in particular, the environmental impacts of the Block Island Wind Farm.
“The process of getting renewable energy” via offshore wind “is stalled and endangered because of fears of the unknown,” Carey said. “With unpredictable processes it is difficult to commit resources. This process is stalled and clogged. If new positive impact could reduce some of this risk and fear, it could help.”
How is it done?
Examples of actions aimed at net positive impacts:
Artificial reefs. This is the biggest single existing example of a benefit to the environment created by offshore wind. The turbines themselves, along with piles of rock at the base of each that prevent scouring of sand by currents, are creating reefs that attract large populations of sea life. This outcome is dramatically visible at the five-turbine Block Island Wind Farm and at two turbines off the coast of Virginia, built specifically for research. The Block Island turbines, naked at first, are now swarming with mussels and black sea bass, among other species attracted to the structures.
Restored shellfish beds. In the North Sea off the coast of England, where many hundreds of offshore wind turbines have been spinning for years, developers are laying rock on the seafloor to encourage the regrowth of oyster beds, destroyed by other factors including overfishing and extensive trawling.
Cod pipe reefs. These are large pipes about 10 meters in diameter that developer Ørsted has built in the North Sea off The Netherlands. They are intended as places for cod to live and reproduce.
Coral growth. Wind turbines are being used as a base for supporting the growth of indigenous coral in waters to the west of Taiwan. The coral is intended to be transplanted elsewhere.
Biohuts in the North Sea off the coast of Denmark are designed as habitat for young oysters.
Shellfish reefs are being restored off the coast of Australia, using shell and rock on the seafloor and also oyster larvae incubated in land-based tanks. Boze Hancock, a senior marine scientist for The Nature Conservancy, called the project “enormously productive because restored habitats create much more biomass.” He added, “Think of it as compound interest. If you look after the babies, it is more effective than caring for the adults.” He said the offshore wind industry is doing most of this work, which is monitored by the industry and regulators to determine what success looks like and how to measure it.
Offset and off-site
As scientists struggle with ideas to give aid and support to ecosystems and species damaged by offshore wind, they also have migrated into the idea of offsets, or replacement resources. These are measures to correct environmental harm that is in some way related to offshore wind, if not on the immediate site of the turbines.
“The offsets may have to happen an ocean away from the offshore wind farm,” said Kate Williams of the Biodiversity Research Institute in Maine. “Maybe we will need to go to breeding grounds to improve reproduction effects. The NPI efforts might have to be far from the turbines.”
Aspen Ellis of the University of California, Santa Cruz offered an example of scientists planning for rehabilitation measures for migrating birds that may be threatened in the future by wind projects proposed for areas off the California coast. Some bird species that move along the California coast actually nest — that is, raise their young — locally, and some nest as far off as Canada and Chile. Anticipating future harm to the birds, scientists are trying to determine what forms of harm mitigation to design, where it needs to be done, and how to manage it across various countries and governments.
NPI work can include restoring breeding habitat areas or removing invasive species that threaten birds. Some of this corrective work is already underway for some bird species in islands off the coast of Chile, Ellis said.
A compact example of offsite NPI work happened near Eden, N.C., said Jason Kinnell, president of Veritas Economic Consulting. A decade ago, 40,000 tons of coal ash spilled into the Dan River, caused extensive harm to the watershed, and further threatened the endangered Roanoke logperch. At around the same time, plans moved forward to remove a dam from the nearby Pigg River, and that project restored miles of habitat in the Pigg River watershed for logperch.
Work on offsets to counterbalance damage from offshore wind, according to Williams and others, would require knowledge about migrating species, and plenty of communication among scientists as they consider the process across entire ecosystems.
“Sometimes the best restoration project is not in the location where the damage occurred,” Kinnell said.
Little action in U.S.; positive impacts elsewhere
The United States is almost two decades behind countries bordering the North Sea in terms of offshore wind development, and it is similarly behind in creating regulations and inducements for net positive impact.
Federal oversight for building offshore wind is done by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). It uses a four-step process that governs planning and analysis; leasing of submerged lands; site assessment; and construction and operations.
“The authority for all of this was kind of bolted on to regulations that were created for an oil-and-gas model,” said Edward Boling, partner at Perkins Coie. He noted the permitting process is a “crazy quilt of authorities,” including states and Native tribes. One effort at interagency efficiencies, Boling said, was to include offshore wind in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, which offers a timeline so that “all the jurisdictional pots come to a boil at the same time.”
Martin Heinze, an economist working with BOEM, said the agency “does not have the authority to address net positive impact right now” under the terms of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970.
Methods to drive NPI practices are alive and functioning widely outside the United States, driven by governments, lenders, and the corporate policies of wind developers themselves. For example:
The International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank, makes loans to projects in developing countries. In the loan process, said Atma Khalsa, environmental affairs manager for Avangrid Renewables, the IFC defines clients’ responsibilities in managing environmental and social risks of projects; establishes benchmarks and best practices; and enforces a biodiversity standard for projects. That standard demands no net loss of habitat and provides resources to achieve net positive goals for biodiversity. Khalsa described one such project happening in Bangladesh.
The British Energy Security Strategy, presented in April 2022 as part of that country’s Offshore Wind Environmental Improvement Package, says if an offshore wind project creates grave harm to habitats and species that cannot be avoided or mitigated, developers must compensate for these impacts. Further, according to Laura Harland, Marine Net Gain team leader in the U.K. Department for Environment, Fisheries, and Rural Affairs, offshore wind developers would pay into a new, industry-funded Marine Recovery Fund that would help deliver compensatory measures.
This year, the government of Australia introduced bills that would, if passed, create a voluntary biodiversity market. Under the system, landholders and other eligible persons could generate certificates for projects that protect, manage, and restore nature. Certificates would be bought by companies or organizations as part of their sustainability initiatives or by project developers who are required to offset the biodiversity impacts of their projects. Projects could be on land or in freshwater and marine environments. They could touch on matters such as restoring native vegetation, planting native species, and protecting rare grasslands that provide habitat for an endangered species.
Wind developers themselves create in-house NPI standards and goals for biodiversity. Rennie Meyers, public affairs adviser for Ørsted, the co-developer of the proposed Revolution Wind project off Rhode Island, said the company’s goal is to accelerate transition to cleaner energy. Meyers said Ørsted intends to require all of its new renewable energy projects from 2030 forward to deliver a net positive biodiversity impact. The company promises to avoid, minimize, and compensate for any impact on nature by its projects and actively help restore and enhance ecosystems.
Currently, Ørsted is partnering with the World Wildlife Fund to restore threatened flat oyster and horse mussel reefs in the North Sea, off the coast of Denmark. These important species are called “ecosystem builders” because they build reefs composed of living creatures, which provide food, shelter, and breeding grounds for other species, and surfaces for algae and soft corals to grow on.
Ørsted is partnering with two wildlife trusts in England to restore biodiversity around the tidal Humber Estuary on the east coast of England. And Ørsted is working on the “ReCoral” project with the Penghu Marine Biology Research Center to support coral growth — leading to later transplanting — on the foundations of offshore wind turbines in the waters off Taiwan.
Funds and credits
Many ideas and techniques — active globally but not yet in the United States that were kicked around during the symposium included creating a common fund into which offshore wind developers make payments for environmental restoration, possibly for later, possibly for locations far from their turbines.
These payments into a common fund are widely used around the world and are less complex than trying to apply ecological equivalence metrics on individual projects, said Aisling Lannin, of the Marine Management Organisation U.K. An example is the industry-funded Marine Recovery Fund under consideration in Britain.
“Compensatory funds should be pooled and regional,” said Ellis, who studies migrating birds.
Another idea is using credits equivalent to a monetary value that developers may acquire and apply for doing specific positive actions through their projects. These are used around the world, but in the United States they have specific limits.
BOEM can apply what it calls bidding credits — also called non-price criteria — under which a developer can enhance its bid for offshore leases by adding certain non-monetary benefits. The bidding credits, used in a multiple-factor auction format, essentially increase the value of a developer’s bid as a bonus for committing to specific activities.
This is happening now for the Pacific Wind Lease Sale 1 on the Outer Continental Shelf off California. However, in the Pacific Wind case, the only two options for non-monetary benefits are for workforce training programs and a community benefit agreement aimed at people who use or are affected by the lease area. The credit is up to a cumulative 22.5% for any developer who commits to both benefits.
At present, under BOEM rules, bidding credits may not be applied to projects offering net positive impact on biodiversity.
Grover Fugate, former executive director of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council, told the gathering, “The scale of deployment we are about to see has never been done before. It is a grand experiment.”