Offshore Wind 101: More Answers from Experts

There are lots of questions swirling around about offshore wind, a promising renewable energy source. In this two-part story series, we share answers from experts at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the National Wildlife Federation.

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The wind that blows off the coasts of the United States is an abundant, untapped clean energy opportunity. Large turbines in the ocean can harness the consistent wind resources there and convert those into clean, renewable power. Offshore wind energy can help America shift away from the fossil fuels that cause climate change and supply our densely populated coastal communities with clean power when and where it is needed most. Coastal areas make up less than 10% of total land in the contiguous United States but are home to about 40% of the U.S. population.

In this two-part Q&A story series, experts from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) share answers to some common questions about offshore wind energy. In the first installment of this offshore wind Q&A series, we covered a few basics such as site selection, the approval process and how energy gets from the ocean to land. This time, we're answering questions about offshore wind's impact on wildlife and looking at the potential for offshore wind development in the Atlantic Ocean.

Question: What are some impacts of offshore wind on whales and other marine wildlife?

BOEM: According to Brian Hooker, lead biologist with BOEM's Office of Renewable Energy Programs, potential impacts to wildlife from offshore wind facility construction and operation generally include temporary changes. These can include disturbance from construction noise, displacement from construction areas and increases in vessel traffic, plus changes to habitat (positive or negative) associated with the presence of the turbines and other structures.

BOEM strives to identify lease areas that create the least amount of conflict with wildlife as well as human use of the ocean. Before authorizing any activity on the outer continental shelf, BOEM first evaluates the potential impacts of that activity on the environment. These assessments evaluate what could occur and what measures should be put in place to minimize those potential temporary or permanent impacts. We are paying particular attention to characterizing high-resolution geophysical (HRG) sound sources based on their potential to affect marine mammals.

NWF: Throughout the development of offshore wind energy in the U.S., wildlife advocates have worked with decision-makers to address the anticipated impacts on wildlife and the environment, with particular attention to vulnerable species like the North Atlantic right whale. Climate change poses an existential threat to wildlife and habitat. Therefore, prioritizing energy solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is critical to the long-term viability of the most vulnerable species.

Any development or activity in the ocean has impacts on marine wildlife. Compared to the impacts of offshore oil and gas development which is noisy, dirty and causes severe environmental degradation and harm to marine creatures we expect impacts of offshore wind development to be much less damaging. Unlike oil and gas development, which includes the use of extremely loud survey methods known to cause permanent damage to whales, survey methods used in offshore wind do not cause permanent damage.

Based on the evidence, scientists do not think that survey activities in preparation for offshore wind development are related to the whale strandings we have seen in recent years. Whales strand due to a variety of reasons, and we know that collisions with boats and entanglement in fishing gear are leading causes of death for whales and other marine wildlife. We must follow the science to understand what is happening to these whales to implement the correct solutions to protect them.

Red Construction Equipment Installs a White and Yellow Wind Turbine in Bright Blue Water Against a Clear Blue Sky

Question: What requirements are in place to protect wildlife and habitats?

BOEM: BOEM takes the protection of marine life and the environment very seriously and tries to avoid, minimize and mitigate any potential impacts from energy activities. The Bureau's extensive experience managing energy resources on the outer continental shelf helps protect habitats and wildlife, as does our collaboration with other federal agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

Mitigation measures that are adopted for offshore wind energy projects come from proposals from the developer, measures developed by BOEM, and measures required by other agencies, including FWS and NOAA Fisheries, through statutory consultations and permitting under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The first step is avoiding the overlap of activity and potential interaction with wildlife and habitats. This includes seasonal restrictions, clearance processes before activities begin and avoiding sensitive habitat. The next step involves minimizing potential impacts by requiring vessel speed restrictions and pile driving noise abatement measures. Federal agencies have worked independently and with developers to monitor potential impacts after construction.

According to Dr. Jill Lewandowski, director of the BOEM Division of Environmental Assessment and Center for Marine Acoustics, BOEM requires strict protective measures during offshore wind industry activities. For example, noise-producing activities like pile driving can impact marine mammals and sea turtles. To mitigate this, operators are required to establish acoustic exclusion zones where the area must be clear of this kind of wildlife for a set time before activities can start. Trained, third-party, protected species observers monitor the area. They are responsible for delaying the start or calling for pile driving or survey activities to immediately cease if a marine mammal or sea turtle enters the area.

Additionally, all vessels in offshore areas are required to have trained lookouts on board to spot and avoid interactions with marine mammals and sea turtles. Any sightings of protected species are reported to BOEM. Ongoing consultation between BOEM and NMFS is crucial, especially regarding animals protected under the Endangered Species Act. Sightings of species like the North Atlantic right whale must be immediately reported to both agencies, which notify the maritime community. These same divisions must be contacted in the event of an unintentional interaction with protected species.

NWF: Mitigation strategies depend on factors like a project's location, time and type of construction and activity and the regional ecology. The largest concerns related to the construction and operations of these facilities are underwater noise, vessel strikes and collisions with turbines, which have various negative impacts on marine mammals, large fishes, birds and bats.

Mitigation efforts might include changing construction schedules to occur outside seasonal migrations, operating vessels at reduced speed or using appropriate noise-reducing technology, like releasing curtains of bubbles of compressed air around installation sites to make it harder for sound waves to travel. Another beneficial tool is underwater acoustic monitoring, which, alongside on-board observers, locates nearby animals and helps prevent animals from being exposed to noise from surveys or construction. The easiest way to limit marine wildlife interactions with offshore wind and protect birds from colliding with turbines happens in a project's early siting phase, where important habitat and migratory or transit corridors can be avoided by excluding them from the development area. Once installation is complete and the facilities are operational, ongoing monitoring can ensure there are no additional negative impacts on wildlife.

Question: What scientific research is being done to protect wildlife, and what else is needed going forward?

BOEM: According to Dr. Rodney Cluck, chief scientist with BOEM's Environmental Studies Program, BOEM funds and manages scientific research to contribute to the growing body of scientific knowledge on the marine environment and has done so for several decades. These studies inform decision-making regarding renewable energy planning, leasing and development. By relying on the best available science and advancements, we are able to meet BOEM's responsibilities under environmental laws, regulations and standards. BOEM recently launched the BOEM Environmental Studies Program (ESP) Hub, an online platform to improve access to ocean research. A partnership with Duke University has resulted in the Wildlife and Offshore Wind project (Project WOW) to study the potential effects of development on marine, avian and mammalian life over five years during and after construction of the first commercial-scale offshore wind projects in the Atlantic.

BOEM Lead Biologist Kyle Baker adds that the studies BOEM funds and invests in have collected baseline information about the distribution and abundance of marine life, birds and bats. They have also analyzed potential impacts from development, including studying seafloor disturbance, sound and electromagnetic fields. Since 2021, BOEM has partnered with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and New England Aquarium to conduct aerial surveys for marine mammals and sea turtles in wind development areas offshore from Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The bureau has expanded these efforts to understand wildlife presence and habitat and continues to fund such surveys in other areas of interest in the Atlantic.

Now that construction of offshore wind facilities has begun, these aerial surveys are continuing, and BOEM is also investing in additional studies to determine if there are any changes to the environment or the presence of wildlife due to offshore wind. The Real-Time Opportunity for Development Environmental Observations (RODEO) is making direct measurements of the nature, intensity and duration of potential stressors during the construction and initial operations of offshore wind facilities. BOEM has also partnered with the Department of Energy to fund numerous projects to increase our understanding of the environmental impacts of offshore wind development, as well as advance tools for monitoring and minimizing impacts.

NWF: There are substantial efforts to learn how offshore wind affects wildlife and the environment. The recently established Regional Wildlife Science Collaborative for Offshore Wind on the Atlantic coast will guide research into wildlife and offshore wind and coordinate funding so that resources are efficiently directed toward knowledge gaps and so that research efforts and data are shared effectively.

Question: What's next for wind projects in the Atlantic Ocean?

BOEM: BOEM is moving forward at the pace and scale required to help achieve the Biden-Harris administration's goal of achieving 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030 enough to power 10 million homes with clean energy and support 77,000 jobs. Over the past two years, BOEM approved the nation's first four commercial-scale offshore wind projects, two of which are already in construction and represent nearly one gigawatt of energy—enough to power almost a half-million homes.

In addition to projects serving New York/New Jersey, the Carolinas and the Central Atlantic (offshore Delaware, Maryland and Virginia), we are in the early stages of identifying possible wind energy areas in the Gulf of Maine (offshore Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine). We are also taking steps to bring offshore wind energy to other places around the country. We held the first lease sale offshore California late last year (also the first lease sale to support floating offshore wind) and held the first-ever offshore wind energy lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico in late August 2023.

The Biden-Harris administration has made tackling the climate crisis a top priority, and BOEM is helping support the administration's offshore wind energy goals. Every day, the staff of BOEM balances the need to move forward to address the climate crisis against the equally important need to ensure that our actions avoid, reduce and mitigate any negative impacts of our efforts to the greatest extent possible.

NWF: As of October 2023, there are just seven offshore wind turbines in U.S. waters. By contrast, there are more than 7,000 turbines operating globally. Summer 2023 marked the groundbreaking of the nation's first two large-scale projects off the coasts of Massachusetts and New York, both of which are already generating power.

BOEM began leasing areas for offshore wind development in 2013 and continues to designate new areas for lease auctions. They are preparing to lease new areas off Delaware, Maryland and Virginia in the coming months. In the meantime, projects proposed for existing lease areas continue to move through the review and permitting process. In July, a third large-scale project off the coast of New Jersey achieved full federal permitting and projects from Massachusetts to North Carolina are in the queue.

Alongside the federal government's work, states are doing their part to prepare to buy and distribute the power generated at these sites. States have been setting offshore wind goals, soliciting project bids and contracting agreements with developers for the past decade and, in many cases, are ready and waiting for projects. Maryland, for example, holds contracts with developers for two large projects still working toward full permitting. The state also passed a new law in early 2023 that nearly quadruples the state's offshore wind commitment.

Construction photo courtesy of Deepwater Wind.

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