Risk of collision with wind turbines, habitat loss and degradation are some of the potential impacts of wind-energy developments on nature and wildlife that should be mitigated, according to recently issued EU guidelines on the design of wind farms near protected sites.
The recent publication of guidelines on the design of wind farms intends to minimise disturbance to birds and bats living in the EU’s Natura 2000 sites, and advocates that member states avoid projects that go against the EU’s Birds and Habitats Directives.
“It is widely recognised, amongst others by the wind energy sector itself, that whereas the global benefits of switching to renewable energy are relatively straightforward to assess, the local interface between a particular wind farm development and the environment tends to be more complex”, according to the guidance document.
Having said this, the document emphasises that this does not imply that wind farm developments in general pose a threat to wildlife, and the impacts must always be examined on a case-by-case basis.
“The type and scale of impact is very much dependent on the species involved, their ecology and state of conservation, as well as the location, size and design of the wind farm plan or project,” which is why cases must be examined individually.
This could potentially raise some problems in the case of the proposed Sikka l-Bajda offshore wind farm, which lies some 1.5 kilometres off Rdum tal-Madonna, where one of the world’s largest colonies of Yelkouan Shearwaters breeds.
Birdlife Malta has also questioned whether the proposed Sikka l-Bajda offshore wind farm would fall foul of the EU’s birds’ directive. The planned 18 to 20 turbines, with an estimated potential of 95MW, concern the organisation.
It has therefore proposed that rigorous and detailed environmental studies are carried out, to ensure the designated conservation interest of the area is not adversely affected, most notably with regard to Yelkouan Shearwaters.
It also proposed that alternative areas are explored, in the case of Sikka l-Bajda being found to be unsuitable, so as not to hinder the development of wind energy in Malta.
The impacts listed in the guidelines include risk of collision, disturbance and displacement, the barrier effect and habitat loss or degradation.
The guidelines state that injuries and mortalities are mostly related to collisions with rotors or associated infrastructure such as overhead cables. Monitoring offshore mortality due to collision is more difficult, as obviously carcasses are hardly ever found.
Disturbance can lead to the birds being displaced, and consequently a loss of habitat use, and can be brought on by visual, noise and vibration impacts. It can also be caused by increased human activity.
The effects of habitat loss can be more widespread than the actual associated infrastructure, but in the case of an offshore wind farm they are comparatively small-scale. Larger wind farms can have an effect, especially on bird feeding areas, for certain species, particularly during spring or autumn migrations.
The wind farms can also force birds or mammals to change direction, but this depends upon the size of the wind farm, the spacing of turbines and the extent of displacement of species, among other factors.
The aim of the guidelines is to attempt to bring together two factors that the EU is working towards: the renewable energy targets; and halting biodiversity loss in Natura 2000 protected sites.
The guidelines also state that wind energy developments “can not only avoid impacting on wildlife but can also on occasion actively contribute to biodiversity conservation”, if planned properly.
In a case in Scotland where two golden eagles were discovered at the site of a planned 30MW wind farm, “an alternative habitat was created for them, away from the turbines, dubbed a ‘mitigation area’”.
This ‘mitigation area’ served two purposes: it made up for the habitat loss that resulted from the turbines; and attracted the eagles away from the turbines, reducing the risk of collision with the blades.
Monitoring has shown that the mitigation area habitat is developing well, and two golden eagle chicks were hatched at the site in 2008.
The European Wind Energy Association, which was pleased to note that the European Commission had released these guidelines, said: “Overall, wind power’s impact on birds, bats, other wildlife and natural habitats is extremely low compared with many other human-related activities.”
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