EU auditors: Offshore wind farms pose 'green dilemma'

The development of offshore renewable energy in Europe may threaten the natural world if sustainable impact assessments are not beefed up soon, the European Court of Auditors has warned in a report published on Monday (18 September).

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the importance of the EU’s energy independence, and our seas may be part of the solution,” said Nikolaos Milionis, the member who led the audit.

“But the EU’s blue revolution should not be pursued at all costs: offshore renewables must not lead to any significant social or environmental damage,” he added.

The EU aspires to build a giant interconnected system of offshore wind fields capable of generating 300 gigawatts (GW) of power by 2050 — a tenfold increase from current capacity and enough to power 200 million families.

According to the auditors, this will require a lot of sea space and €800bn of investments, but they also warn that the environmental impact on marine life is still poorly understood, which they describe as a “green dilemma”.

While EU strategies try to reconcile offshore wind targets with environmental effects, including species displacement and changes in animal population structure, food availability, or migratory patterns, to name a few, the auditors “fear” drastic expansion of offshore wind may have “detrimental effects on marine life.”

To deal with this, Katarzyna Radecka-Moroz, one of the report’s authors, said that “all the activities that have an impact on marine life should be assessed together in the environmental impact assessments”, which are mandatory for each offshore project.

Dutch authorities were singled out for including environmental standards in a recently approved wind farm, which provided “nature inclusive” criteria such as constructing reef structures on the sea bed or allocating a section where wind turbines are widely spaced so birds can safely fly between them.

But other economic activities such as shipping, tourism, and fishing also impact marine life and compete for the limited space.

And the auditors warn that a lack of skilled labour may create bottlenecks, which could slow the development of offshore wind farms.


A central point of contention has been growing competition between the fisheries and offshore wind sectors.

“The coexisting of fisheries and offshore wind hasn’t been resolved yet,” said Radecka-Moroz. “That is our main message.”

The Dutch authorities had succeeded in “getting the fisheries sector” back to the table by including them in discussions about allocating sea space, she said, but warned that conflict between France and Spain’s “powerful fisheries sectors” and offshore wind remained problematic “and could reemerge if new wind farms are discussed.”

Member states will present final energy and climate plans in June 2024. To make the best use of available space, the auditors also called on member states to better coordinate offshore wind plans.

“EU countries sharing the same waters rarely plan common projects. This results in missed opportunities to use scarce sea space more efficiently,” the auditors noted.

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