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An Unseen Problem

It is fair to say that, when discussing the environmental impacts of offshore wind, birds and marine mammals have certainly been at the forefront of the collective thinking of regulators, consultants, academics and the industry in general. In our experience, it is very rare that we are asked to consider bats in our approach to pre-construction surveys or impact assessments. In attending last September’s Conference on Wind Energy & Wildlife Impacts in Portugal, we found that studies regarding bats formed a very small proportion of the overall representations of the assembled experts from around the world. However, the evidence that was presented was intriguing, and most certainly a clear warning that we are not doing all we should to consider the potential impacts on bats from these installations.

The problems are clear – bats are small, nocturnal animals and, if they are crossing our seas, the chances of detecting them on radar systems (designed to detect flocks of migrating birds), or observing casualties of such a tiny animal in a vast waterbody like the North Sea are minimal. We do know, however, that various bat species cross our seas, and perhaps even forage further away from the coast than we would think is feasible. Anecdotal evidence, and increasing numbers of localised studies, show bats of several species feeding up to 10km offshore, and occasionally even beyond that, as well as being observed resting/ roosting on offshore installations such as oil rigs, and even wind turbines themselves (Ahlen et al 2007). In the right conditions, large numbers of bats could be following significant aggregations of insects far out to sea, possibly placing them in harm’s way as more and more wind farms spring up around the Baltic and North Seas, as well as Europe’s Atlantic coastlines.

Regulation & Guidance

The lack of evidence, and the difficulty in collecting that evidence, has posed a problem for the organisations tasked with ensuring that the environmental impacts of offshore development are minimised and mitigated for appropriately. To date, only Germany has devised formal guidance for offshore bat study and impact assessment. Other nations propose an approach based on the EUROBATS publication ‘Guidelines for consideration of bats in windfarm projects’ (revised 2014). The primary function of the EUROBATS initiative is to conserve Europe’s bat populations, and it is recognised that we simply do not know enough about offshore bat activity to rule out significant problems for the populations of several species, most notably Nathusius’ pipistrelle Pipistrellus nathusii, soprano pipistrelle P. pygmaeus, and noctule Nyctalus noctula (Arnett et al 2015).

Broadly, the guidance recommends that any boat-based surveys be conducted during April and May (inclusive) and August and October (inclusive) to cover the vital migratory season. For installations closer to shore, or in narrower channels, land-based surveys conducted from headlands will supplement this work, with additional surveys in June and July to cover periods of higher foraging activity in calmer conditions.

A Bespoke Approach

In interpreting this guidance, and ensuring that any development complies fully with regulations and minimises any ecological impact, it is vital that the programme of survey work is designed to provide us with a strong, evidence-led basis for our assessment. All potential offshore turbine sites will present their own unique conditions and challenges. We would always aim to make the most efficient use of our time by combining other necessary work, such as boat-based bird survey, with the deployment and retrieval of bat detection equipment, and simultaneous nocturnal bird and bat activity surveys.

The use of appropriate technology will be crucial to any study of offshore bats. Automated bat detectors would be used on land (at potential crossing points) and, where feasible and necessary, at sea on platforms such as rigs, buoys or night operating ferries if they are in the vicinity of the proposed wind farm. As well as hand-held bat audio detection equipment on our boat-based transects, thermal imaging cameras will be utilised to visually monitor the area and add as much as possible to the dataset.

As technology advances, our work, and collaborative efforts with academic institutions, will assist our understanding of where, when and how bats are using the open sea. Studies involving radar and GPS tags (available now for even the smaller bat species) will be consulted to broaden our understanding of this phenomenon, and how we can combine this with our data to design meaningful mitigation for bats as part of the spectrum of ecological considerations at future offshore wind farms.

References

Bats in the Anthropocene: Conservation of Bats in a Changing World; Chapter 11 – Impacts of Wind Energy Development on Bats: A Global Perspective, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-25220-9_11. E.B. Arnett at el (2015).

EUROBATS Publication Series No. 6: Guidelines for Consideration of Bats in Wind Farm Projects – Revision 2014. L. Rodrigues et al (2014).

Bats and Offshore Wind Turbines Studies in Southern Scandinavia (Swedish Environmental Protection Agency). Ahlen et al (2007).

 

The fourth Conference on Wind Energy and Wildlife Impacts came to a close on Friday 8th September, following four days of presentations, knowledge sharing and discussion on this vital issue. Our very own Kelly Clark (Principal Ecologist) and Rich Hall (Principal Ornithologist) were in attendance; Baker Consultants have now been represented at the event on three out of four occasions, including its inception in Trondheim in 2011. We are proud to continue our strong association with this global collaborative effort to enhance our understanding of the impacts on wildlife from wind energy development, and thereby guide the evolution of mitigation – alongside academic institutions, technology innovators, fellow consultants, and of course the wind energy industry itself.

Portugal’s wind energy industry has already achieved impressive feats. Currently generating around 25% of the country’s energy demand from wind alone, its offshore capacity is also experiencing a surge, and technological advancements such as floating turbines place Portugal firmly at the forefront of wind energy development in Europe and at a global level. With this in mind, the country is the perfect host for the 2017 version of the conference.

Offshore wind energy is a rapidly growing industry; figures this week from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy showed that the cost of generating energy from wind power in the UK will be cheaper than that from nuclear power for the first time in history. Advancements in strategy and technology mean that firms are beginning to overcome the issues and costs associated with logistics, efficiency and electricity storage. If these trends continue, it is likely that offshore wind will become a leading force in energy production across the UK and Europe and, where environmental conditions allow, on a global scale.

A presentation from WavEC Offshore Renewables illustrates the range of floating platforms in current development, advancing the options available to the wind industry.

 

 

Offshore Wind: a steep upward curve – a rapidly growing industry around the world.

 

With this in mind, it was encouraging to see firm commitment from industry and regulators to addressing the issues regarding wildlife impacts. Organisations such as ORJIP (Offshore Renewable Joint Industry Project) have been set up by offshore wind energy firms, in partnership with regulators, to fund vital research into the impacts of offshore wind farms with a view to advising meaningful mitigation, thereby reducing the costs and delays associated with poor science or a failure to fully address the range of potential impacts.

 

WavEC’s research also illustrates a little-known problem for offshore installations: bats.

 

Studying wildlife in the marine and coastal environment can be challenging, and gathering the level of data required to satisfy regulatory and legal frameworks even more so. Baker Consultants’ expertise and experience makes us ideally placed to provide an ecological consultancy service for the lifetime of any given project, from scoping and designing/ implementing survey protocols, through data analysis and impact assessment, to post-consent monitoring (construction and operation). Our in-house team includes consultants trained and certified to the highest standards, such as European Seabirds at Sea surveyors, and experts in avian and cetacean bioacoustics, as well as qualified UAV pilots – technology that can be particularly useful in conducting wide-ranging visual surveys as efficiently as possible.

 

With many years of combined experience in ecological and ornithological impact assessment, including coastal development, and offshore windfarm construction monitoring and mitigation, we also pride ourselves on innovation in terms of both technology and survey/ mitigation design. The growing issue of offshore bats is a case in point: a phenomenon that is difficult to study and poorly understood, but with our technology partners and unparalleled experience of bioacoustic survey, we are rising to the challenge of assessing this potential constraint on offshore development.

 

The theme of this conference is sharing and collaboration. Held every two years, it showcases the latest knowledge and research in the field, and drives the continuous improvement of techniques, methodology, analysis and assessment. A good example is the way we think about potential impacts – collision risk is still a topic of conversation, but inherent assumptions and flawed science that caused problems for this form of analysis are being driven out by well-resourced and well-funded research. The sharing of knowledge improves our understanding of statistical analysis, detailed monitoring of operational wind farms, and enhancing the importance of factors such as displacement from vital habitat, not to mention barrier effects.

 

Baker Consultants shares this enthusiasm for robust science, leading to proper assessment and targeted, effective mitigation. Working together with researchers, regulators, technology partners and the wind industry, we aim to promote these values, with a view to supporting the establishment of installations with minimal impact on wildlife, whilst maximising the potential for renewable energy.

 

The third Conference on Wind Energy and Wildlife Impacts was held at the Berlin Institute of Technology between March 10th and 12th, building on prior events in Stockholm (2013) and Trondheim (2011). The bi-annual event brings together representatives from academia, government agencies, industry, conservation and consultancies throughout the world. Over 400 delegates from around 30 countries attended, and Baker Consultants were represented by ornithological specialist Martin Ledger, and marine and ornithological specialist Rich Hall.

It was a busy few days, with more than 50 posters exhibited, 162 abstracts submitted, and 65 oral presentations across two parallel streams. Martin and Rich were not only able to absorb a lot of new thinking and fresh evidence on the subject of wildlife and wind energy, but also had the chance to speak to many of the most important stakeholders in the global industry, as well as fellow consultants and academics at the forefront of the drive to improve our understanding of how to maximise the environmental benefit of wind energy whilst minimising harmful effects on wildlife.

Conference on Wind Energy and Wildlife Impacts 2015

Conference on Wind Energy and Wildlife Impacts 2015

One of the biggest themes at the event was the call to vastly improve the data we feed into our collision risk assessments, especially with the increasing number of huge offshore wind farms across the world. So many studies have shown us that the most widely used models we have do not accurately predict the fatalities that occur at a given site. The industry as a whole needs to improve, and post-construction monitoring should become a fundamental part of this process, enabling us to properly assess, at a landscape scale, the most hazardous zones for wildlife, whether it be birds or bats, particularly with the increasing number of bats reported to be making huge and impressive migrations across the North Sea.

There was also new bioacoustics research and technology presented relating to effective mitigation during the initial establishment of wind farms and the noisy piling activities that affect fish, seals and cetaceans. This is an area in which Baker Consultants is already heavily involved, with recent projects in the North Sea, such as Borkum Riffgrund 1.

Martin and Rich intend to build on the information shared at this event and take it forward into their work, primarily across the UK and Europe, as part of this drive for better methods, better data, better mitigation and better assessment.

Rich has written an article in the latest edition of the Wind Energy Network magazine.

The article explains the importance of preliminary assessments and scientifically robust surveys in particular for bats and they way they use habitats.

Please read the link for the full article:

BatFeature

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Rich writes:

With the continued growth of our marine business, I attended this event to investigate the opportunities it presented for marine and coastal bird survey, particularly in relation to offshore windfarms.

DeTect staff delivered detailed presentations on the capabilities and technical aspects of their radar system. One of the problems with offshore bird monitoring is getting staff out on site in potentially difficult conditions; this system would allow us to record birds in all conditions, night or day, from a remote location. Analysis of the resulting images would enable us to feed into a suitable collision risk model for assessment.

The obvious problem with radar is its inability to identify species. Therefore we will always need skilled bird surveyors out in the field to ‘ground truth’ our results. DeTect have also devised a number of advancements in their software, reducing visual clutter and ensuring the clearest image possible for later analysis.

In general, radar systems are recognised as a vital tool in offshore ecological impact assessment, and should form part of any bird survey on marine developments. As always we aim to use the most innovative techniques to improve the efficiency of our work, while ensuring scientific robustness in our methods. MERLIN is one of a number of radar systems specifically designed for bird impact assessment and, of course, others could be more suited to our particular projects. Watch this space.