Brussels, 11 Aug 2005
Most current research into offshore renewable energy options fails to take sufficient account of the ecological implications, according to a major new review published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.
The review by Andrew Gill of Cranfield University in the UK found that despite the high academic interest in offshore renewable energy - with almost 400 papers published in 2003 - few of the studies looked at environmental impacts, either positive or negative.
'Less than 1 per cent of the articles considered the potential environmental risks of renewable energy exploitation, and none was specifically related to coastal ecology. Ecological factors are not being considered properly and are under-represented in any discussion of the costs and benefits of adopting offshore renewable energy sources,' according to Dr Gill.
Northern Europe leads the world in offshore renewable energy developments, but despite their obvious advantages compared with energy derived from fossil fuels, they are still likely to have a range of direct and indirect environmental impacts.
As Dr Gill explains: 'Construction and decommissioning are likely to cause significant physical disturbance to the local environment. During day-to-day operation, underwater noise, emission of electromagnetic fields and collision or avoidance with the energy structures represent further potential impacts on coastal species, particularly large predators.'
Given the lack of literature on the ecological impacts of offshore renewables, Dr Gill looked at the impact of fishing and dredging on marine habitats, considering them to be analogous. He concluded that 'local loss of sedentary infauna and reef builders would be expected, while non-sedentary marine benthos would be displaced'.
More difficult to assess are the impacts of noise and electromagnetic fields from offshore developments, although Dr Gill believes the potential for disturbance to be high. 'Sound is used for communication, finding prey and potential mates, and avoiding predators,' he explained, adding that high voltage cables could interact with aquatic animals sensitive to electromagnetic fields, particularly sharks and rays and marine mammals that use the Earth's magnetic field to navigate.
Equally, however, Dr Gill expects that offshore renewable energy developments (ORED) could have positive effects on the marine environment, for example by creating new food opportunities and places of refuge for juvenile sea life. But until research gives more consideration to the ecological impacts of offshore renewables, it is impossible to assess the balance of harmful and positive effects.
'The stability of coastal ecosystems worldwide is under threat, hence ORED must be planned appropriately to protect the ecosystem from further degradation, and to enhance it wherever possible, and ecologists must play a fundamental role in this process,' Dr Gill concludes.