Last week, a survey suggested that two thirds of people want to see the current onshore wind policy restrictions removed. This adds support to other recent surveys, including the Government’s own Public Attitudes Tracker, that have been suggesting public opinion about onshore wind has changed.
Perhaps surprising to some, this is music to our ears here at the RSPB. The RSPB’s Energy Vision published in 2016 highlights that we need more well-planned onshore wind as part of our energy mix if we are to tackle climate change in a sustainable wildlife-friendly way. Yet, in 2015 the Government brought in new planning rules for onshore windfarms which has led to a 94% drop in development proposals. Instead developers have been focusing primarily on offshore wind.
This is a cause for concern for the RSPB. UK Government is failing to encourage a low-cost low-carbon energy solution that is supported by the public, and which has the potential to be wildlife-friendly. At the same time, it is driving ahead with potentially more damaging and costly options that are out of sight, out of mind, with limited consideration of the environmental consequences. Because of the potential risks, we think the UK approach to renewable energy needs to change.
Why the RSPB wants to see more onshore wind development
People would be forgiven for thinking that the RSPB doesn’t like wind farms. However, while the RSPB does object to some proposals due to the wildlife risks (approximately 7-10% of applications), we are in favour of wind turbines that are well located and designed to avoid harming local wildlife. After all, climate change is one of wildlife's biggest threats.
We want to see a future where we get much of our energy from renewable sources, that helps reduce our carbon emissions, and ensures a flourishing environment for wildlife and people.
Windfarms are a part of that future, and there is still lots of potential for wildlife-friendly onshore wind energy generation. However, to achieve a truly sustainable future, we all need to look at what else is being disrupted by our actions to halt climate change and plan strategically to make the most of the low-impact opportunities available to us. This will help to avoid harmful options.
We need renewable energy in order to save nature, not to threaten it
The problem we face is that often wind farm locations are not always well planned, and when proposed projects threaten vulnerable species and habitats, we are duty bound to stand up on behalf of our voiceless wildlife.
We are worried about two developing issues as a result of current energy policy:
While there is scope for more onshore wind in the UK, many of the UK’s most important places for wildlife are in more remote areas. For example, there is only very limited potential for more large-scale wind energy on Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles without risk to internationally important wildlife interests (see figure 1). Therefore we are disappointed that the Government is encouraging onshore wind projects in remote – often sensitive – locations (with the newly announced 2019 Contracts for Difference auction round), whilst still maintaining the effective ban on onshore wind in England and Wales where greater low risk opportunities exist.
Figure 1: Indicative map of ecological sensitivity to large-scale onshore wind, based on national data sets. See RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision Technical Report for full details
Our other key concern is offshore wind. People may sometimes overlook the wildlife supported by our seas, but human impacts on the marine environment go well beyond the high-profile risk from plastics. The seas are vital for marine wildlife, including kittiwakes, puffins and other seabirds that go in search of food, often miles from our shorelines (see figure 2). Whilst we have much still to learn about interactions between our seabirds and wind turbines, we do know that, if poorly located, windfarms present a collision risk for these beautiful birds, and they can also block their ability to feed which can have impacts on breeding success. To date the RSPB has objected to 60% of offshore wind proposals due to the impacts these projects posed to our marine wildlife.
Figure 2: At-sea distribution of four seabird species during breeding season. Warmer colours indicate higher usage of area. See https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/eap.1591 for further details on this scientific research.
Concerned by this increasing threat, the RSPB’s scientists have been assessing the impacts of built and approved (but not yet built) offshore wind developments on seabirds. Whilst findings are yet to be published (we’ll update you further when they are) early indications are that it doesn’t look good for the future of some key species.
We want to see Government and industry focus on avoiding and then mitigating the impact the wind industry is having in the marine environment, not pushing ahead heedless of the impending conflicts. We welcome this week’s announcement that the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult will receive additional financial support. However, we would like to see some of this directed towards research and innovation that will help offshore wind avoid and mitigate wildlife impacts. Wildlife is often poorly sited all around the world, meaning the UK could be a global leader in avoidance and mitigation solutions, not just efficiency savings. This is an opportunity we think the UK are currently failing to make the most of.
So, what would help fix this problem?
UK Government needs to:
And, what can you do to help?
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