SCOTLAND is blessed with an incredible natural environment and nowhere is this more apparent than in our seas, where one-third of all the EU’s seabirds breed – around four and a half million birds.
The announcement on 24 July that Scottish Ministers had confirmed 30 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) was therefore greeted with a huge welcome by conservationists.
This is a massive step towards a comprehensive framework for marine protection and the Scottish Government have rightly been given wide-ranging credit for making progress.
This is good news for nature conservation – but what does it mean for marine renewables?
Scotland’s location, in the full force of the energy of the Gulf Stream, brings nutrients to our shores and means our seas can provide the perfect conditions for marine wildlife. These same forces mean there is massive potential to generate electricity by harvesting the power of tides, waves and wind.
The Scottish Government estimate that we have up to 25 per cent of Europe’s tidal power, 10 per cent of its wave power and around 25 per cent of European offshore wind resource, which is great news for generating clean, renewable electricity and for tackling climate change.
Of the offshore renewable technologies, offshore wind offers the greatest potential in the short term. This has resulted in a number of large offshore wind farms being proposed around Scotland’s coasts, with five projects currently proposed for the east coast. Two in the Moray Firth have already been granted consent and three are awaiting a decision.
Although these projects would deliver emissions reductions, helping us to tackle climate change, RSPB Scotland and other conservation organisations are concerned about the potential impact these schemes could have on birds and other wildlife.
Climate change is one of the greatest long-term threats to wildlife. Reducing the causes of climate change using all of the methods at our disposal, including building wind farms, is therefore a good thing for wildlife globally. However, we know from experience that onshore wind farms can have a devastating impact when located in important bird areas: in the early years of the industry, poorly planned farms in places like Tarifa in Spain and Altamont in California killed large numbers of birds.
We need to be careful not to repeat those mistakes, and in Scotland we have so far been largely successful. While the visual impact of onshore wind farms has been frequently controversial, wildlife impacts have usually been addressed.
So why does offshore wind cause such concern when onshore wind has largely been developed without significant harm to wildlife?
Until the announcement on MPAs we had no protected areas for wildlife at sea but, now, future developments will benefit from guidance provided by these new zones.
However, The scale and speed of development proposed offshore is also quite different from that onshore. The five offshore wind schemes currently proposed off Scotland’s east coast would have a generating capacity of some 4.5GW while the total generating capacity of all current onshore wind farms in Scotland is just 4.6GW.
That 4.6GW of capacity has been developed gradually over the last 20 years, through hundreds of projects. This has allowed us to monitor the effects of the wind farms on wildlife, gradually building up our knowledge of how big a threat they pose.
In contrast, no wind farms have been built in areas comparable to those currently proposed for Scotland’s waters, and there is certainly nothing on this scale in such sensitive sites. We just don’t know how our wildlife, including iconic seabirds like gannets, puffins and kittiwakes, will react to these major new developments.
We need to take stock and improve our understanding of what the impacts of these developments might be before we rush ahead with development on such an unprecedented scale.
• Aedán Smith is head of planning and development for RSPB Scotland www.rspb.org.uk