Why is ocean biodiversity a problem Ørsted cares about? What are the problems you want to solve?
I’d say it’s only within the last few years that the world—and I’d include ourselves—grasped how interlinked climate change is with the nature crisis.
It cannot be said often enough: The first thing the world needs is to stop extracting and burning fossil fuels. That is the largest contributor to stopping the destruction of our planet. As the market leader in offshore wind, we play a key part in the transition to renewable energy—and when we build those renewables, we obviously want to help halt the loss of biodiversity, whether that’s on land or offshore.
The dialogue about the importance of oceans really began at COP26 in Glasgow and then continued at COP27 in Egypt. As the world’s leading wind energy operator, we are a key actor in that conversation, albeit a newer one compared to the shipping industry, fishers, the defense industry and tourism.
Talking about offshore wind means also talking about marine spatial planning. To meet the 1.5°C scenario, the world needs to build out offshore wind fast. In this decade alone, the global offshore wind capacity is expected to increase by a factor of seven.
What’s the impact of offshore wind energy on our oceans’ biodiversity?
During the construction of an offshore wind farm, two of the main impacts are local habitat change around foundations and noise when piling the foundations into the seabed, which can be harmful to marine mammals. As the wind turbines operate, the spinning blades can pose risks for birds.
We’ve implemented measures to avoid or mitigate these risks during the construction and operation phases. But the broader conversation is focusing more on actually being a force for good.
Can you say more about those measures to avoid or mitigate?
To protect marine mammals from noise during construction, for instance, we can use underwater curtains of air bubbles around individual foundations that can reduce that noise outside of that bubble-curtain significantly. In deeper waters it may also be possible to use floating wind turbines over fixed-bottom foundations that do not require piling.
Which then can be positioned farther offshore?
They still need anchoring on the ocean floor, but they don’t need as much piling activity as fixed-bottom foundations and you can reach different depths with them. But again, the new paradigm is to actually be net positive for the ecosystem you are operating in.
What could “net positive” look like?
We are working with NGOs and scientists from different universities to try to find out.
In the North Sea’s Humber region, where we run the world’s largest wind farm, we are doing a seascape restoration project that includes reintroducing half a million oysters and restoring sea grass and salt marsh. In Denmark, we are experimenting with 3D-printed reefs and in Taiwan we are testing whether corals can grow on offshore wind turbine foundations.
One of the main challenges is understanding how to measure biodiversity, particularly in the marine environment, so that you have metrics and are able to measure whether you are making a substantial, positive difference.
We are working on developing our own measurement framework in line with disclosure frameworks such as Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures and target-setting frameworks such as Science Based Targets for Nature.
No one has all the solutions yet, but we have to experiment, learn and test rather than sit and wait for the method to arrive from somewhere else.
With wind farm projects growing larger, there are reports that some projects are inadvertently becoming fish sanctuaries as trawlers don’t want to enter these areas for fear of their nets getting caught in wind turbine foundations. Is that true?
As a renewable energy developer, we strive to ensure co-existence with other marine users. In places where fishing is not allowed in operational wind farms, it’s possible that local fish populations may grow, but that depends on the specific location.
I would imagine some of your investors might say: “Wind energy is so much cleaner than fossil-fuel extraction in the oceans. Do we really have to attract public attention to the negative impacts of our company on ocean biodiversity?”
It’s true that we have to maintain proportionality here and not forget just how much better wind energy is for our oceans than the extraction of oil and gas.
Having said that, we have to do everything in our power to minimize our impact and actually improve biodiversity. What is key here is to account for biodiversity as early in a project as possible. These wind farms have a lifetime of up to 50 years, so addressing biodiversity early can have a lasting positive effect.
You’re tackling a systemic challenge that is bigger than Ørsted. At Brunswick, we often see leaders organize industry-wide coalitions, pushing for regulatory changes that mobilize their industry. What are your policy-focused activities?
We work both within our industry, through industry organizations, and across industries. We are co-founders of the Climate Group’s SteelZero initiative and the World Economic Forum’s First Movers Coalition, with the aim to decarbonize steel. We are founding members of the coalition’s “near-zero” concrete commitment as well. We also speak with the automotive industry to create broad demand for these new technologies.
And then there is our work in the policy space. Most of our clients are, effectively, governments. We try to inform them during the tender phase about the importance of biodiversity in commissioning wind farms.
What advice can you give on working with NGOs? What works? What doesn’t?
The best is to create proper partnerships. The years of off-the-shelf sponsorships are over—I’d call those marketing initiatives, which might serve a purpose but don’t generate real change. Create joint projects with measurable targets. And realize that there can be friction between the NGO mindset and the corporate mindset.
When you make it through that friction, and learn to look at things from the other side, good things can happen.