Will offshore wind threaten wildlife? A Duke-led team is working to find out

·3 min read

A team of scientists led by Duke University researchers will set out to determine the risk offshore wind turbines could pose to birds, fish and marine mammals with the support of a U.S. Department of Energy grant.

The $7.5 million grant was awarded as federal and North Carolina officials push to scale up the offshore wind industry, with President Joe Biden setting a national goal of 30 gigawatts of wind by 2030 and N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper setting targets of 2.8 gigawatts by 2030 and 8 gigawatts by 2040.

Researchers from 15 institutions will create a tool-kit that the wind energy industry and regulators can use to figure out where wind farms should be placed and what steps should be taken to protect nearby wildlife. The Duke University grant is one of four included in the Department of Energy package.

“Given the scope of it, it just seemed like an opportunity to bring some good science into the discussion and development of offshore wind and look at it as holistically as possible,” said Doug Nowacek, a Duke University professor of conservation technology who is the project’s primary investigator.

On Oct. 13, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced a plan that would lease offshore wind sites nationwide by 2025.

Haaland’s announcement includes one new North Carolina lease, the so-called Carolina Long Bay project off the Brunswick County coast, where federal officials are targeting a May 2022 lease sale. Another site, off of Kitty Hawk, has already been leased.

“We’re entering into a different scale of development in the United States and so there’s really an opportunity to look at impacts as projects build out at broader commercial scales and then use that information to help inform permitting, management and siting decisions moving forward,” said Jocelyn Brown-Saracino, the U.S. Department of Energy’s offshore wind lead.

The Duke-led team will use data collected by the wind energy industry and partners to build risk assessment frameworks. From there, researchers will identify potential data gaps. After that, the team will tag wildlife around soon-to-be-built wind farms off of Martha’s Vineyard and Long Island.

Nowacek said research from the wind farms that are already entering the construction phase will be used to help wind farm developers like Avangrid in North Carolina determine which wildlife monitoring and protection efforts worked elsewhere and could be implemented here.

Why reinvent wheels that were just invented up the coast a little bit?” Nowacek said.

Warmer, more acidic oceans and other impacts of a changing climate pose a threat to marine ecosystems, Brown-Saracino added, but it is also important to minimize the potential harms of wind turbines and other technologies that lower emissions.

In a written statement, Jennifer Granholm, the U.S. secretary of Energy, said, “In order for Americans living in coastal areas to see the benefits of offshore wind, we must ensure that it’s done with care for the surrounding ecosystem by co-existing with fisheries and marine life — and that’s exactly what this investment will do.”

This story was produced with financial support from 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.

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