Inside Energy

Designing wind and solar projects to protect biodiversity

Scientists studying wildlife habitats and behaviours are helping to shape the future of renewable energy.

By Ryan Harrison on Sep 7, 2021

Two hours by boat off the Dutch coast scientists watch as a robotic arm lifts cages of oysters out of the North Sea on to a research vessel. The turbines of an offshore wind farm tower about 100 metres above their heads. 

The small team of ecologists is recording the health of around 2,400 oysters that were placed on four turbine foundations in November 2020 as part of a pilot project.

A message pings on programme director Erwin Coolen’s phone as he follows progress back on dry land in Utrecht. The news is good, the oysters appear to be thriving. 

Scientists lowered specially designed cages full of oysters down to the base of the wind turbines
Scientists lowered specially designed cages full of oysters down to the base of the wind turbines. Image: Stichting de Rijke Noordzee.

More renewable energy is key to achieving the climate goals of the Paris Agreement – the IEA forecasts the sector could grow by around 50% by 2025. Wind and solar facilities can enhance nature, which the oyster pilot is helping demonstrate. But renewable projects can also risk causing damage to biodiversity if poorly planned, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), one of the world’s largest environmental networks. 

In early 2021, the IUCN published detailed guidelines on how companies can do more to protect biodiversity – the variety of animal and plant life that helps regulate the health of the planet. In September, around 5,000 people – conservation experts, business leaders, policymakers and others – from more than 170 countries joined the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille, France. 

The congress hosted events in person and online after a year-long delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. As well as promoting the new guidelines, which Shell helped to develop, there were discussions on how businesses and biodiversity can better interact.

Coolen’s oysters are part of the Rich North Sea project, which features in the IUCN report. In the 19th century, about 30% of the Dutch North Sea was shellfish reef, according to Ole Olsen, a seafaring expert and cartographer at the time. But the reefs have now largely disappeared, in large part because of overfishing. 

“Wind farms are protected areas and therefore trawler fishing is not allowed, so the seabed is not disturbed,” says Coolen, whose project is supported by the Blauwwind consortium – Shell is one of five partners that operate the Borssele III and IV offshore wind farm. “This creates a perfect nursery chamber for new marine life,” he adds. 

Researchers record the size of each oyster.
Researchers record the size of each oyster. Image: Stichting de Rijke Noordzee.

Protecting biodiversity

The IUCN says careful screening for biodiversity risks at the planning stage is crucial. Wind turbines and transmission lines can pose a risk to birds, and marine mammals such as sea turtles can be vulnerable to construction noise. Solar parks can also occupy huge spaces that could be important for biodiversity.

Scientists are also calling on governments to enact policies to address biodiversity alongside climate change, which can have similar consequences for human welfare. This is because damaging forests and other ecosystems undermines nature’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

“We can’t solve one problem at the expense of another,” says Giulia Carbone, deputy director of the business and biodiversity programme at the IUCN.

An important role for nature in project design 

In New Jersey, USA, scientists have attached satellite tags to threatened red knot birds to understand migratory patterns, ahead of the construction of Shell’s Atlantic Shores offshore wind joint venture.

The flight data will help inform conversations with government agencies, influencing the process for issuing environmental permits.

Red knot birds are tagged as part of preparation for an offshore wind farm.
Red knot birds are tagged as part of preparation for an offshore wind farm. Image: Wildlife Restoration Partnerships.

Paul Phifer, Atlantic Shores permitting manager, says: “Tagging allows us to see where the birds are flying and at what altitude. Of course, we are especially interested in whether they fly through our lease area.”

Phifer is also experimenting with aerial and underwater drones to track marine wildlife, including sea turtles and whales. He says knowing which species are present is especially important during construction.

“This type of innovation in project planning is increasingly important to the way we do business,” says Koen Broker, environmental manager for Renewables and Energy Solutions at Shell. “As part of its Powering Progress strategy, Shell has stepped up its environmental efforts, including a new ambition to have a positive impact on biodiversity.”

Carbone at the IUCN is calling for an industry-wide effort to make real progress. “It is only through collective action that we can really have a positive impact on biodiversity,” she says. “Everyone has to head in the right direction.”

The power of solar parks for pollinators

  • In Rotterdam, the Netherlands, ecologists have been studying the impact on biodiversity of a solar park built at the Shell Moerdijk chemical complex.
  • Dutch biodiversity centre Naturalis found many more plant species and pollinating insects at Moerdijk than on neighbouring agricultural land, including 50 wild bee species.
  • Moerdijk, and other industrial sites, can harbour plant and animal species. Koos Biesmeijer, scientific director at Naturalis, says: “They are the next best thing after nature reserves for nature in this area.”
  • Naturalis is studying Shell’s Heerenveen solar park, a 20-hectare site in the north of the Netherlands.

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