Could offshore wind farms be about to face further planning hurdles?

Around 1,900 turbines are in operation or in the pipeline near the Flamborough to Filey Coast SPA off the North Yorkshire coast. As the North Sea gets increasingly crowded, concerns are growing over the accumulative impacts of wind farms on protected sites

9.3 gigawatts of wind projects are currently operational in UK waters. Photograph: William Edwards/AFP/Getty Images 9.3 gigawatts of wind projects are currently operational in UK waters. Photograph: William Edwards/AFP/Getty Images

Growing concerns about the cumulative impacts of wind projects on protected areas in an increasingly crowded North Sea may mean such projects will in future face further planning hurdles. 

Things came to a head recently over Ørsted’s Hornsea Project Three scheme, a 300-turbine farm located 120 kilometres north-east of the Norfolk coast. An expected government decision on the project in October was delayed after last-minute submissions from the RSPB and the developer. The secretary of state is now considering the “complex” issue, with a new decision deadline of 31 March 2020.

The problem actually cropped up during the planning process for another nearby offshore wind farm, Norfolk Vanguard, which is being developed by Vattenfall. In a letter to the Planning Inspectorate in May 2019, Natural England said the project would not on its own adversely affect protected areas but it may do when combined with Hornsea Three.

Andy Dodd, head of casework at the RSPB, explains that many of the wind farms in the area are near a large seabird colony in the Flamborough to Filey Coast special protection area. The Wildlife Trusts, meanwhile, are worried about the noise impact of installing so many turbines in the North Sea on marine mammals. BEIS has also asked for more information on how Hornsea Three will affect a number of special areas of conservation (SACs) and marine conservation zones.

The Planning Inspectorate must now consider whether Hornsea Three poses a risk to protected areas in combination with nearby farms and give its advice to BEIS. If the secretary of state finds there is a risk of adverse impacts the project could receive a derogation if the project meets certain tests: no feasible alternative solutions exist that could avoid or lessen adverse effects on the site’s integrity; there are imperative reasons of overriding public interest; and compensatory measures are put in place.

Previous projects that have met the threshold for adverse impacts have generally been coastal. For example, a container port near Southampton was blocked in 2004. But some risky schemes have won consent via a derogation.

However, it is the first time an offshore wind project has faced these hurdles, although the Crown Estate announced in late August that a proposed extension to Ørsted’s Race Bank scheme would not be allowed to go ahead because of possible adverse impacts on a SAC uncovered during a plan-level habitats assessment.

In 2013, industry body RenewableUK and the Natural Environment Research Council published Cumulative Impact Assessment Guidelines. But Dodd says there are still questions to answer about significant impacts and how to compensate for them.  

While the case certainly means a delay for Ørsted’s plans, it might also affect other North Sea developments. Natural England noted that more major wind projects were due to be submitted to the Planning Inspectorate next year, and said that “without major project-level mitigation... there is a significant risk of large-scale impacts on seabird populations”. 

This may become even more problematic as the Crown Estate opens up more of the seabed for development. The latest offshore leasing competition round began on 14 October and includes parts of the North Sea around existing farms. Penny Simpson, partner at law firm Freeths, says the best thing offshore developers can do is completely mitigate their impacts because taking the derogation route is “risky”. 

As a start, Natural England recommends that all future offshore projects in the North Sea should raise turbine draught heights to allow migrating birds to fly below the blades.

RenewableUK’s head of policy and regulation Rebecca Williams says the Offshore Wind Industry Council is considering cumulative impacts as part of a strategic plan to address potential barriers to deployment under the Offshore Wind Sector Deal. She adds that the Crown Estate was working on a strategic enabling actions programme to support sustainable and coordinated expansion of offshore wind.