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Commentary

Renewable and Responsible

Nicole Yeomans, Offshore Industrials Lead and Marine Ecology Expert at NatureMetrics, says technology can future-proof floating offshore wind investments against nature risks.

In 1991, ten years after the construction of the first wind turbine, the world’s first offshore wind farm was built in Denmark. Since then, much research has been conducted to better utilise the ocean’s wind power, making offshore wind not only a viable form of sustainable energy, but a strong investment opportunity. Large capital investments into engineering technologies have driven a price reduction of this renewable energy which became price-competitive in Europe with conventional power sources in 2017.

Until recently, offshore wind turbines were placed on fixed structures and could not be installed in very deep or complex seabed locations, which limited the number of sites where these turbines could be utilised. However, the development of floating offshore wind platforms in recent years has opened the door to more offshore sites where the higher wind potential is being utilised in larger and deeper areas.

These large platforms can take different shapes to provide the turbines with buoyancy and stability. They are connected with cables to heavy weights on the seafloor, allowing platforms to float and move with tides and waves but preventing them from drifting. In 2022, 7.1% of global wind power installation came from offshore wind contributing 64.3GW across 19 countries and three continents. By 2050, floating offshore wind will represent 6% of all offshore wind share and a total projected capacity of 300GW.

Exponential growth

With the race to net zero on – and looming renewable energy targets to meet for many countries by 2030 – the interest in the floating offshore sector has grown exponentially. In March 2023, the US administration set a goal to generate 30GW of floating offshore wind energy by 2030, which would power over 10 million homes. Meanwhile in the UK, Labour leader Keir Starmer recently announced an increased investment into floating offshore wind technologies as part of a £8.3 billion budget should the party win the upcoming election. This investment aims to further the UK’s net zero target of obtaining 50GW of energy from offshore wind by 2030. In December 2023, The European Investment Bank also announced a €5 billion commitment to support wind manufacturers and over €20 billion in financing for new projects, such as large-scale offshore wind in the North Sea, small-scale renewable energy projects in Spain, and supply chain factories in Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany and Spain.

Floating offshore wind turbines have opened the door to larger areas with a significantly stronger wind potential, and as a result are set to be a major area of investment globally. However, there is little research on the impact these technologies have on the marine environment and ecosystems these floating turbines are anchored to. Floating offshore wind turbines offer renewable energy, but their installation can negatively impact seabed organisms and marine life.

Corals, molluscs, seaweeds, and many other species are vulnerable to disturbance from anchoring systems and these installations’ construction activities. Offshore wind infrastructure can alter water flow and sedimentation patterns of seagrasses and seaweeds, and modify the behaviour and distribution of surface-dependent species. Cables connecting the turbines to the seafloor pose additional concerns, potentially disrupting marine life, including fish and mammals. Careful consideration of these environmental impacts and implementation of mitigation measures are essential for balancing clean energy goals with marine conservation efforts.

Adapting to regulatory changes

Disclosure regulations are coming into place, such as Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive, that require monitoring and reporting of the impact of offshore sites on their environment. Investors need to take these requirements into account when building their portfolios.

The main target guiding regulatory efforts worldwide is the UN’s Global Biodiversity Framework launched in 2022 at COP15, focusing on halting and reversing nature loss by 2030. This framework set the goal to recover and restore 30% of our marine ecosystems and aims to halt human-induced extinction of known threatened species through conservation measures and sustainable use of seascapes and the ocean.

Furthermore, in June 2023, the UN’s 193 Member States adopted the High Seas Treaty to preserve the ocean beyond national borders, consisting of previously unprotected areas covering two-thirds of all the planet’s oceans and seabeds. This treaty has paved the way to greater protection of the high seas which generate 50% of the oxygen in the atmosphere and provide 15% of protein intake, essential to the livelihoods of three billion people. The living organisms in these offshore areas, known as the ‘global commons’, are responsible for absorbing a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions and capturing 90% of the excess heat generated by these emissions. Therefore, the preservation of these ecosystems is vital for the fight against climate change.

Other frameworks and initiatives have also come into play to ensure the preservation of essential marine ecosystems. In March 2023, the final draft of the Task Force for Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) recommendations was released, which aims to encourage and enable business and finance to assess, report and act on their nature-related dependencies, impacts, risks and opportunities. In this draft, TNFD Beta v0.4 introduced guidance on reporting of marine ecosystems which were previously outside the scope of these recommendations. This nature-related risk and opportunity framework will enable these stakeholders and investors with floating offshore wind assets to understand the natural risks of operating in these high-seas marine ecosystems. While other industries – including offshore wind – will have to adapt to these regulations and frameworks, the floating offshore sector has the unique opportunity to incorporate nature monitoring right from the start.

Investors and stakeholders need to understand how offshore companies in their portfolio might be dependent on natural capital, and conversely, how they are impacting nature. Thus, it is paramount for the floating offshore wind sector to consider nature risks as direct financial risks. As a case in point, the UK’s marine assets are valued at £211 billion. Marine policy in the UK is beginning to reflect this with upcoming regulations such as Marine Net Gain. This initiative will build on the Biodiversity Net Gain goal aimed at ensuring the environment is left in a measurably better state than before development.

The rise of nature intelligence

So how can floating offshore companies accurately measure and monitor the ecosystems their projects impact?

Until recently, offshore biodiversity monitoring relied on traditional methods like trawling, requiring special vessels and ecologists, which can only be conducted if weather permits and in the absence of commercial fishing nearby. Furthermore, trawling needs to be conducted close to the turbines which constitutes a health and safety risk. But recent technological advancements have led to the development of innovative tools to collect, measure, and report on nature that directly reflects the state of biodiversity of the local environment. 

Novel technologies that provide ‘nature intelligence’ are enabling companies to repeatedly monitor, report and manage their assets’ relationship with nature with unprecedented precision and scale. Examples of these nature intelligence technologies include environmental DNA (eDNA) monitoring, earth observation, and bioacoustic technology.

eDNA enables the identification of DNA remnants from species interactions within an ecosystem, from a simple extracted sample of water or sediment. This method can assess the diversity of the whole tree of life, from majestic blue whales to important fisheries species, carbon sequestering phytoplankton, and microbes in a specific area, facilitating comparisons in the health of ecosystems over time. Satellites or drone remote sensing technology can monitor visual biodiversity indicators such as species distribution, habitat types, and even digital twins of an entire ecosystem to track changes on the earth’s surface.

Bioacoustic analysis allows us to combine our understanding of animal sounds and their dispersion to identify the species in an area. The amalgamation of these innovative approaches enables businesses to paint an increasingly richer picture of the earth’s biodiversity, which can inform how economic activities are imprinted into their surrounding ecosystems.

Cutting-edge technologies

These cutting-edge technologies are already revolutionising how floating offshore wind companies can track their environmental impact, with eDNA for example allowing accurate and reproducible identification of 70% more species than traditional, more costly, and time-consuming methods. Additionally, they can be utilised to understand the integrity of the food chains in these environments, as well as the prevalence of sensitive species to understand the commercial value of these ecosystems.

For example, the measurements of eDNA allowed EDF Renewables to gain a clear picture of biodiversity at an innovative float and submerge gravity-based offshore wind farm in Northumberland – to uncover a greater diversity of species than previously captured through traditional methods. The sampling of this wind farm known as the Blyth Offshore Demonstrator captured data on mammal and bird species, elusive and migratory fish species, and invertebrates.

Early implementation of biodiversity reporting technologies in floating offshore projects will not only allow companies to be ahead of any regulatory changes and potential scrutiny as the sector evolves, but will also provide a means to future-proof floating wind farm construction projects. By utilising earth observation methods, bioacoustic technologies and eDNA technology, investors and stakeholders can safeguard their investments against legislative changes and secure social licence to operate.

This approach will mitigate the reputational and nature-related risks associated with these assets. Crucially, early adopters of these technologies will gain a competitive advantage by establishing environmental sustainability standards in a sector intrinsically linked to environmentally-related risks and position themselves as leaders in responsible floating offshore wind development.

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