Renewable energy is a necessity as we aim for net-zero carbon emissions, but it comes at a cost to wildlife
Renewable energy is a necessity as we aim for net-zero carbon emissions, but is our wildlife paying the price?
Standing on a Sussex beach while galeforce winds create a maelstrom of waves threatening to inundate the low-lying land behind isn’t the best time to argue against wind energy. Wind, clearly, is an abundant and powerful force, and the swelling surf is a stark reminder that rising sea levels – caused by climate change – could create havoc for many parts of Britain’s coastline, and increasingly are.
But campaigner Zoe Visram is undeterred. “Rampion 2 wind farm is going to cause tremendous harm to wildlife, with the cable [carrying the electricity] coming ashore here at Climping, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its vegetative shingle, sand dunes and migratory birds,” she says. “The trench for the underwater cable will impact marine life, including seahorses, black bream, and oyster and mussel beds.”
Visram is leading efforts by local residents to stop Rampion 2, a development of between 75 and 116 wind turbines off the coast of Sussex, stretching some 50km from Newhaven to Selsey Bill. Modern wind turbines are enormous – those planned for Rampion 2 could reach 325m high, as tall as the Eiffel Tower, and will be clearly visible from the coast.
Two official bodies – Natural England and the South Downs National Park Authority – along with the RSPB, Sussex Wildlife Trust and Sussex Ornithological Society, have expressed concerns about the potential impacts of Rampion 2. These range from seabirds and migrating songbirds colliding with the turbines to the disturbance caused by laying the underwater cable and then digging a 50m-wide cable route that winds 37km inland through the South Downs National Park.
“We are very concerned about hedgerows,” says Sussex Wildlife Trust conservation officer Jess Price. “There is no information on exactly how many will be impacted, what length are being removed, where they are and what state they are in. Some may not be very species-rich, others could be remnants of ancient woodland.”
The RSPB has expressed particular concern about the potential impacts on northern gannets, which it said the developer – a German multinational company called RWE – was not taking sufficiently seriously.
But there is an alternative viewpoint. Once up and running, Rampion 2 will generate up to 1.2 gigawatts (GW) of electricity annually – more than 10 per cent of the total UK wind energy capacity in 2020, and enough to power a million homes.
It would make a substantial contribution towards the government’s commitment to quadrupling wind energy generation from 10GW to 40GW by 2030 and achieving netzero carbon emissions by 2050. To put it bluntly, could it be worth sacrificing some trees, hedgerows and seabirds for this? After all, most scientists are agreed that climate change is the single biggest threat to life as we know it.
The outbreak of war in Ukraine has amplified the issue of Europe being dependent on Russian gas and oil. Wind energy – particularly for an island nation such as the UK – offers a viable route out of this quandary. Increasing our renewable energy capacity, said the Guardian within days of the conflict beginning, “dramatically reduces the power of autocrats, dictators, and thugs”.
Jess Price – speaking in mid-February, before Russia invaded Ukraine – says the issue is more complicated than that. “The climate and nature crises are inextricably linked, and efforts to solve one are futile if they also contribute to the other,” she says. “We want to see a move to renewables, and a massive decline in the use of fossil fuels, but it’s got to be done in a way that’s not harming wildlife.”
RWE says it has been actively engaging with a wide range of bodies throughout the process, and that the wind farm is still in a very early, pre-planning application stage of its development.
“We are confident that we will be able to put forward a good proposal that strikes the right balance between the significant wider environmental benefit brought by the renewable energy generated, whilst minimising, where possible, the local impacts,” RWE told BBC Wildlife.
A wind farm doesn’t have to be on the scale of Rampion 2 to have potentially disastrous impacts on wildlife. Nearly 1,000km north, in a large commercial forestry plantation in Aberdeenshire, Clashindarroch II will consist of 14 wind turbines generating sufficient electricity to meet the demands of 55,000 households. It will be roughly one-twentieth of the size of Rampion 2.
Here, it’s feared the removal of trees to make way for the turbines and disturbance during construction could have a seriously negative impact on wildcats, Britain’s only surviving native wild felid. A public inquiry held in late February and early March heard conservationists’ claims that the development will impact at least five to six wildcat territories, equating to one-fifth of a total population estimated to be as low as 30 wild individuals. Ultimately, the wind farm could lead to the “wholesale extinction of the Scottish wildcat in the wild due to its critically endangered status,” they said.
Ecologist Dominic Woodfield says Clashindarroch is not the right place for the new wind farm because the degree of risk is so high compared to the “less than 0.1 per cent” contribution it would make to Scotland’s renewable energy output. “Should you really be taking this level of risk with what could be the most important population of wildcats in the country?” he asks.
Not all conservation groups agree these wildcats are threatened. Or, more to the point, they don’t agree they are wildcats. Saving Wildcats – a partnership of organisations including the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, the government’s nature advisor NatureScot and Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) – says that the majority of the individuals in Clashindarroch are domestic cat hybrids and therefore not a priority for conservation.
That said, FLS, which owns and manages the land, has long known that wildcats in Clashindarroch had the potential to become a major stumbling block to the wind farm expansion plans. An email in 2017 warned that two wind farms proposed for the area would result in “significant clear-felling [cutting down most or all trees in an area of wood]”.
“I will be surprised if the presence of Scottish wildcats does not become a significant issue during the planning process,” wrote FLS district manager John Thomson. “I flag this simply to ensure that we do not create any hostages to fortune regarding the scale of our felling operations.”
The point being that FLS and other organisations were well aware that Scottish wildcats – whether hybrids or not – were in Clashindarroch and therefore potential spanners in the proverbial works, but the project has managed to reach the public inquiry stage regardless.
Roo Campbell, NatureScot’s mammals advisor, says the possible impacts of the wind farm pale in comparison to other types of development. “Fragmentation of habitat comes from major roads, fields without much cover and conurbations,” he says.
The development will impact at least ve to six wildcat territories that most conservationists agree on – there is very little in the way of proper forward planning on where wind farms are located. Jack Thompson, the RSPB conservation officer dealing with Rampion 2, says the organisation sees many proposals that should never have got to the planning stage because of how they will affect wildlife.
“One of the things we want to push for is for the impacts of all wind farm developments to be looked at more holistically, so that we make sure we direct the efforts of the Crown Estate [which hands out licences] and all developers towards those key spaces where the potential for energy generation is still good, but not close to seabird colonies,” he says.
Planning – or lack of it – is not the only problem, according to Catharine Horswill, a conservation scientist with University College London and the Zoological Society of London. She says that the way the impacts on seabirds are being assessed underestimates what could happen in reality.
Horswill studies black-legged kittiwakes, one of the UK’s fastest declining seabirds. It’s not clear exactly what is bringing about this decline, but it’s likely a combination of rising sea temperatures changing the distribution of prey such as sandeels, and overfishing of the same species. As a result, breeding success is considerably lower than it needs to be to keep populations stable.
But in a paper published in March, Horswill shows that modelling used by developers does not take these breeding declines into account, which means the long-term impacts of wind farms could be even greater than feared.
She and other scientists are concerned about plans for a trial floating wind farm that could be located just 25km from two of the UK’s most important seabird islands, Skomer and Skokholm, off the coast of Pembrokeshire. Here, long-term monitoring is helping scientists understand how seabirds are being affected by climate change and fisheries.
“In an ideal world, we wouldn’t be placing wind farms anywhere near these important seabird islands,” Horswill says.
In the Firth of Forth and Tay area of north-east Scotland, the concerns are even more concrete. A total of eight wind farms, three with consent and another five in various pre-application phases, are planned in a region that includes Bass Rock – home to the world’s largest northern gannet colony – the Isle of May and various onshore seabird colonies.
Just for those wind farms that have been given the go-ahead, it has been estimated that “over 1,000 gannets and hundreds of kittiwakes could be killed each year during the summer months alone, and many hundreds of puffins could die as a result of losing important feeding areas,” according to RSPB Scotland.
Where wind farms that are predicted to have an impact on seabirds do go ahead, developers are now required to put in place compensation measures.
“The current flavour of the month is kittiwake hotels,” says Horswill. “Building artificial structures for kittiwakes to nest on.” The idea is that by creating additional breeding habitat, you will increase the number of young birds fledging annually.
But, she points out, kittiwakes are struggling due to lack of food, not lack of nesting space. “The requirement for companies to compensate for the impacts of wind farms could have resulted in a step-change in marine conservation,” she adds. “For example, if they were to fund a reduction in fishing for sandeels, that could be really beneficial for kittiwakes and other species such as puffins.”
This government’s relatively new-found zeal for renewable energy should surely be welcomed, but there’s no escaping the potential costs to wildlife. As Jess Price says: “When people say that we should put Rampion 2 somewhere else, part of me thinks, ‘Well, there’s something there already’. Practically every inch of the sea, if there is not a project happening, there’s a company trying to get a licence for one.”
The bottom line, say both campaigners and conservationists, is that we should be looking at reducing our energy consumption while also making the transition away from fossil fuels. Otherwise, we’ll merely be swapping carbon emissions for biodiversity loss. Or, to put it another way, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
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