Bird trouble threatens to derail offshore wind programme

Virtually all the proposed sites for offshore wind farms are in areas of potential international importance for birds and "serious concerns" surround proposals for the Thames estuary, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has warned. The group is urging the Government to speed up designation of marine nature reserves before allowing development to proceed offshore.

The Government expects wind power to be the dominant renewable energy source at least until 2020 (see pp 31-33 ). Much of the growth is expected to come from offshore projects.

Twelve of the original 18 sites in the proposed first round of offshore development have secured both consents and capital grants (ENDS Report 346, p 8 ). The Government is forging ahead with the second round - and last December, the Crown Estate announced another 15 sites (ENDS Report 348, pp 13-14 ).

To inform site allocation, the Government conducted a strategic environmental assessment. This warned that there were still major gaps in knowledge about wildlife populations and described a "potential significant risk" that birds could be excluded from wind farm areas through loss of feeding habitat and "barrier effects" (ENDS Report 342, pp 15-16 ).

Even so, the impression remains that the offshore wind industry and the Department for Trade and Industry have failed to recognise the potential for the drive for renewables to fall foul of wildlife concerns.

Mark Avery, the RSPB's director of conservation, told a British Wind Energy Association conference in March that the group regards climate change as the most serious long-term threat to biodiversity. The RSPB maintains that it is in favour of renewables, including wind power.

However, Dr Avery warned that "urgent research is needed into the locations, numbers and movements of birds around our coasts to help us understand the potential impacts. If we are to avoid expensive and time-consuming legal battles, the Government needs to do more to understand where there might be problems and to steer wind farm developments away from such areas."

The RSPB, which objected to 27 wind farms between 1998 and 2003, has now confirmed its opposition to Shell and Powergen's proposed 1,000MW London Array in the Thames estuary. The group says the estuary supports large numbers of wintering red-throated divers.

Moreover, the RSPB has "serious concerns" over all proposed developments in the outer Thames. This is a major blow to the Government's aspirations - the area is one of three strategic zones earmarked for further development, and hosts two first round and four second round sites.

Indeed, the group warns that "virtually all" sites earmarked for second round projects are in areas identified by English Nature as of potential international importance for birds. "We don't know how many second round sites could be affected and we hope it's only a few," Dr Avery said after the conference.

The RSPB has grown increasingly vocal - but its concerns should not have come as a surprise to developers. It has already warned that it will object to Amec and British Energy's proposed 300-turbine development on the Isle of Lewis, which is designated as a Ramsar site of international importance for birds (ENDS Report 323, p 8 ), and to the Shell Flat offshore development off Blackpool. Shell Flat, home to three first round sites, supports over 40,000 wintering common scoters - a sea duck that is on the UK "red list" of endangered species.

The RSPB is concerned that offshore developments could damage sites which should be designated as marine conservation areas under the 1979 birds Directive and the 1992 habitats Directive. So far, the Government has designated no such sites in UK territorial waters. Last August, it consulted on plans to extend coverage of both Directives to sites beyond territorial waters (ENDS Report 343, p 48 ).

The Environment Department (DEFRA) now hopes that regulations to extend both Directives offshore will be introduced this summer, and expects EU guidance on the identification and management of offshore marine sites by the end of the year. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee is putting together a map of sites being considered for designation.

The RSPB is concerned that this process has been too slow. It told a parliamentary inquiry in March that "there is a risk that sensitive sites will be damaged by inappropriate development, or that appropriate development will be delayed unnecessarily."

Data about bird numbers are coming to light through developers' own site surveys. Dr Avery says that these are not sufficiently rigorous to determine whether a site should be designated - but are enough to justify caution.

"There is a concern that the whole designation process could be overtaken by the need to roll out wind power," he added. The RSPB may seek to mount a legal challenge if developers attempt to proceed on a site which the RSPB believes could merit designation.

Under the Directives, development in a designated area can proceed only if there is no alternative solution and there are "imperative reasons of overriding public interest" why it should go ahead. The first criterion may be hard to satisfy, given the range of possible alternative sites and other options for reducing CO2 emissions from electricity generation.

If a development nevertheless proceeds in a designated area, compensatory measures must be taken. The RSPB believes this will be particularly tricky for offshore projects, but could involve restrictions on fishing in other areas or installation of artificial reefs.

Dr Avery hopes that legal challenges will be avoided and said that relatively minor changes to project design could help significantly. For instance, some development at Shell Flat may be acceptable if there is "a bit of give and take" about site boundaries.

The RSPB's concerns contrast with Greenpeace's continued enthusiasm for offshore wind. In February, the group released a report by consultants Garrad Hassan which claimed that offshore wind could supply almost one-third of Europe's electricity demand by 2020 more cheaply than coal or nuclear power once environmental costs are included.