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Wind turbines off of Block Island

Wind turbines at Orsted's Block Island wind farm off Rhode Island, one of two commercial offshore wind farms in the United States. Credit: PennyJack Creative/Shutterstock

Wind Farm Impacts on Whale Habitat Is Still a Mystery, Scientists Say

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October 13, 2023

(Bloomberg) —

The US should direct more study of how offshore wind farms affect water flows and a food source for critically endangered whales near the Massachusetts coast, according to an influential panel of scientific advisers.

The analysis published Friday by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine underscores how little is known about the interaction between wind turbines installed on the seabed and the ecosystems surrounding them. That’s especially true in the US, where a nascent offshore wind industry is beginning to take off, with developers confronting rising prices and strained supply chains to install turbines along US coastlines.

The assessment, sponsored by the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management that oversees offshore energy leasing, focuses on the Nantucket Shoals near Massachusetts. The region is home to strong, steady wind, shallow waters and low waves that make it conducive to development. The area is also a significant source of zooplankton, including the chief prey for North American right whales.

Opponents of offshore wind have seized on concerns about the industry’s impact on whales to argue for a pause on development. Future studies recommended by the National Academies could have implications for nine potential offshore wind farms in the region being developed by Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, Avangrid Renewables LLC., Orsted A/S and Eversource Energy, among others.

The NAS panel urged the US government promote — and, when possible, mandate — observational studies within wind farms throughout their development, with an eye to learning more about right whale distribution, their zooplankton prey and water movements.

“The studies available about the effects and implications of wind farms on local ecosystems are not sufficient to say with absolute certainty whether the turbines would have effects on specific parts of the Nantucket Shoals ecology,” said committee chair Eileen Hofmann, a professor in the Department of Ocean and Earth Sciences at Old Dominion University. “Research and monitoring will be essential as these projects move forward.”

Even one turbine installed in the seafloor can cause changes in the behavior of surrounding water — and by extension, the zooplankton living within it. When wind blows across a turbine, energy is extracted, leaving a wake behind the structure and reducing circulation in the upper ocean, the NAS report said. There’s also increased turbulence in the water behind the structures themselves.

Previous research linked changes in the amount and location of zooplankton to decreased right whale calving rates. Here, NAS said, it’s unclear whether turbines could drive an increase in zooplankton, shrink their concentrations — or have no impact.

Changes to zooplankton field aren’t likely to be significant enough to “drive annual reductions in foraging success that decrease calving rates” among the right whale, the report said. “Understanding of foraging dynamics in this first large-scale wind energy site will provide critical information for planning future wind energy development to avoid population-level impacts.”

© 2023 Bloomberg L.P.

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