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Iberdrola opens call for solutions to include nature in offshore wind farms

wind farm

Spanish energy developer Iberdrola has opened a call for start-ups to improve the protection of marine diversity in its offshore wind projects. The initiative highlights the sector’s trend towards increasing sustainability as the demand for offshore wind is set to boom.

Iberdrola has launched a call for start-ups to propose solutions that can increase the positive impact of offshore wind farms on the marine environment.

Offshore wind is a key technology to get the world to net zero, but installation of the technology can not come at the expense of a healthy ocean.

Proper planning and innovative solutions can ensure that more offshore wind can be installed with minimal impact on the marine environment.

Renewable energy developer Iberdrola (MCE:IBE) is calling on the help of start-ups to innovate new solutions that put nature first in its offshore wind projects.

The challenge was put forth by the company’s start-up programme PERSEO, an initiative with €175 million in backing from Iberdrola to foster the development of next-generation sustainability solutions in the power sector.

Iberdrola is hoping to receive proposals to ensure healthy marine habitats and promote ecosystem growth while developing and operating its offshore wind fleet. This includes solutions that use sustainable materials and design to protect infrastructures and submarine cables from underwater scour, including space for nature in foundations, and reducing the risk of wind turbine collisions or blue carbon sequestration initiatives.

Offshore wind is one of the key clean energy technologies that will help the world achieve net zero, and Iberdrola is already operating 1.2 GW of offshore wind capacity with another 5.5 GW in the pipeline. However, as offshore wind turbines continue to get bigger and bigger, and more and more turbines are installed at sea, concerns have been raised over the impact of the growth of the sector on the marine environment.  

Offshore wind has grown faster than any other renewable energy source

The growth story of offshore wind has surprised even the most optimistic analysts, and the sector has been growing at an unprecedented rate. When the first turbine was installed at sea in 1991 off the coast of Denmark, many thought that offshore wind was a pipe dream. But now, the tides have changed and offshore wind has quickly become a centrepiece of the world’s transition to net zero.

Thanks to strong, consistent winds at sea, offshore wind power has the highest average capacity factors compared to other renewable energy sources, and can even compete with efficient gas-fired and coal-fired power plants in some regions. Offshore wind is also significantly less variable, fluctuating in its output at half the hourly rate of solar PV.

This strong resource potential coupled with the ability to install offshore wind at a large scale as well as increasing efficiencies and technology innovations in the sector have led to rapid cost reductions. Since 2021, the sector experienced a 67% reduction in levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) – the fastest cost fall of any renewable energy source.

As a low-carbon energy source, offshore wind also has significant emissions reduction potential. Offshore wind also has one of the lowest carbon footprints over its entire lifecycle compared to other power sources, around 70% less than solar PV and 99% less than coal. The UN’s High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy estimates that ocean-based renewable energy led by offshore wind could help the world achieve around 10% of the emissions reductions needed to stay Paris Agreement-aligned.

Altogether, these factors have led to widespread interest and adoption of this clean energy technology globally to help countries make the transition to net zero.

Today, there is currently 56 GW of offshore wind capacity installed across the world, with over 21 GW installed alone in 2021 due to a rapid scale-up in China. Over the past decade, offshore wind has experienced a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of around 36%, and the sector is expected to continue its massive growth over the next decade.

By 2030, forecasts estimate that the industry could install at least 50 GW of new capacity per year. And this forecast could significantly increase as more and more countries put in place policies to tap into their offshore wind resource and opportunities to couple offshore wind with green hydrogen production mature.

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), an intergovernmental organisation, estimates that at least 2,000 GW of installed offshore wind capacity will be needed to keep global warming under 1.5 C and achieve net zero by 2050

More turbines in the water must be installed without disrupting the marine ecosystem

Considering the massive projected growth of the offshore wind sector over the next few decades, it is critical that these turbines are installed in a way that does not disrupt the marine environment.

The ocean is currently responsible for around 50% of the oxygen produced on the planet, and absorbs around 25% of carbon emissions. 

A healthy ocean is therefore key to achieving global climates to limit climate change and increasing resilience, and the rush to install clean energy should not come at the expense of marine ecosystems. 

With some offshore wind turbines now reaching the same heights as the Eiffel Tower, installing these massive structures at sea while limiting environmental impact is a challenge that the sector faces as it scales up globally. 

Activities such as dredging to install subsea cables to transport the clean electrons from sea to land, drilling foundations into the seabed, construction noise and operating and maintaining the turbines can disrupt the marine environment.

Studies show that the biggest risk of offshore wind on the marine environment is the disruption of habitat for marine flora and fauna, as well as risks above water relating to bird migratory patterns. However, there is still a gap between the perceived and actual risks of offshore wind as there is a lack of data on the real environmental impacts.

Despite these risks, the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) believes that offshore wind can be installed without significantly damaging the environment and there is potential for habitat enhancement through offshore wind if the right planning and mitigation measures are put in place.

Planning offshore wind farms with nature in mind

Before any offshore wind farm is installed, most countries require extensive environmental and social impact assessment reports to limit the impact on the marine environment and other marine industries such as fisheries.

To mitigate the impact, marine spatial planning is key for the coordination of different ocean activities, different countries, and different marine habitats. This forward-looking planning is crucial to ensure that offshore wind farms are installed and operated in areas that do not negatively affect nature, and for developers to apply the necessary solutions to enhance ocean habitats if possible.

For example, the WWF found that if the right planning steps are taken, offshore wind farms have actually supported an increase in species diversity by acting as artificial reefs and applying scour to foundations and subsea cables for specific species’ needs in the area can increase species viability.

Iberdrola is not the first to take steps towards deploying nature-centric solutions in its offshore wind farms, and reflects the wider sector’s shift towards more sustainable solutions beyond emissions reductions under pressures from civil society and governments. 

For example, the Danish energy developer Ørsted (ORSTED.CO) is currently working with the Penghu Marine Biology Research Center to restore coral reefs using their offshore wind foundations off the coast of Taiwan.

While offshore wind clearly has a much smaller impact on the marine environment than other traditional energy sources like offshore oil and gas drilling, minimising impacts as much as possible is essential to maintain a healthy ocean. 

Driving the innovation of nature-inclusive solutions and proper planning with the marine environment in mind can ensure this sector can deliver the carbon emissions reductions needed, while contributing to a thriving ocean environment to increase climate resilience.

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