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Need For Reform - Offshore Windfarms

In a drive to combat climate change by reducing CO2 emissions and lessen man’s reliance on fossil fuels, the sea is now being explored as a potential source of renewable energy - wind, wave and tidal.

Offshore wind is the most technically advanced of these technologies, although it is still largely at a development phase. Because appropriate wind farms sites on land have become scarce, attention in some EU countries has switched to the seas where, it is hoped, large scale developments can be sited far from shore with less planning difficulties arising from visual impact and greater energy yields due to strong offshore winds.

Offshore wind farms bring their own particular problems not least the high cost involved in construction, maintenance and grid integration and potential negative impact on coastal environment. In Europe and the US, first generation offshore wind farms proposed inside the 12 nautical mile zone (22 km) are proving even more contentious than those on land. There is widespread debate as to whether their high cost (double those on land) and impacts on marine wildlife and coastal landscapes can be justified by the potential savings in CO2 emissions.

Offshore wind farms are vast industrial complexes. Typically they involve the following:

  • Turbines: Large-scale wind turbines, up to 150 metres/ 500 feet high ( as high as a 30 storey building) mounted on huge monopile foundations. See Fig 1 below.
  • Foundations: Each monopile foundation is a steel pile, around 60m long and 5m wide, weighing around 400/600 tones. This is drilled, hammered or vibrated into the seabed to a depth of around 32M (105 feet).
  • Scour Protection: Wind turbine foundations change water flow patterns leading to “scour” or a lowering of the seabed immediately around them. To try and prevent this, large quantities of rocks are dumped on the seabed at each turbine site, before and after the foundations are installed
  • Offshore Substations: Large substations mounted on platforms fixed to sea bed are installed to collect power from groups of wind turbines before feeding it to shore
  • Cables: The turbines are interconnected with 33kV power cables which are connected to the offshore substations. Here the voltage is transformed from 33kV to 110kV and one or two export power cables bring the power to shore. All the cables are buried to a depth of at least 1m using trenching equipment

Offshore wind turbines: how high?

Figure 1: Offshore Wind Turbines: Height from Sea Level to Blade Tip



The typical life of an offshore wind farm is estimated at around 20 years, roughly the same as that of a wind farm on land. However, offshore the harsh marine environment is a major problem. Wind turbines can require extensive repair and maintenance during their lifetime, leading to high costs and extensive ongoing impact on the marine environment.

No large offshore wind farm has as yet been decommissioned. The question arises as to whether the seabed should be restored to its original state or left as it is. Both options have significant environmental implications.

Large-scale offshore wind farms have a very large spatial footprint. For example, the 1100MW Codling Wind Park in Wicklow’s near shore zone (off Bray Head), will comprise 200 turbines up to 150m high, spread over 55km² (21 sq miles).

It is clear that large offshore wind farms (construction, operation and decommissioning) represent unprecedented incursion by man into the marine environment. Many conservationists are querying whether such incursion can be justified environmentally at a time when marine life is already under threat from climate change and increased human activity in the coastal zone.

A major attraction of large-scale offshore wind farm development is that it is subject to less restriction than development on land, since planning systems traditionally end at the high water mark. However local planning authorities and the communities they represent are deeply concerned about the consequences of offshore wind farms along their coastal zones. The trend now in strategic planning is for larger installations, further out to sea, in deeper waters. Some countries, including Germany, Netherlands and Belgium, have introduced 12 nautical mile (22km) buffer zones to protect sensitive coastal areas. This is clearly going to be the norm in the future.

There is international consensus that offshore wind farms must be to a proper scale and properly sited to avoid damaging impacts.

Offshore Wind – International

Offshore wind is still in its infancy with just 1,400 MW installed worldwide, about 1% of the 146,094 MW of wind power capacity installed on land. Almost all this development is constructed in North European waters, driven in large part by Europe’s 2020 goal for 20% of all EU energy to come from renewables. Unlike Ireland which has ample on shore wind capacity much cheaper to develop, a few member states, most notably the United Kingdom, are relying on expensive offshore wind to help reach these ambitious targets.

Denmark, the leading manufacturer of offshore wind turbines, and the United Kingdom are the two key countries espousing offshore wind energy. Together they account for about 80% of all offshore wind capacity installed worldwide at end 2009.

Operational Offshore Wind Farms, European Wind Energy Association, Jan 2009

Figure 2: Total 1,471.33 MW, Operational Offshore Wind Farms. Source: European Wind Energy Association, Jan 2009


The first offshore wind farms in Denmark, developed in the 1990s, comprised a few small turbines located close to shore. These were followed by further small projects in Sweden, The Netherlands and the UK, employing slightly larger turbines - up to 2 MW. Today there is general consensus that the future of offshore windfarms lies in arrays of large turbines in deeper water, far from shore. The North Sea is a favoured zone because of its relatively shallow waters, strong winds and proximity to huge urban centres. Over the past few years, the size of offshore wind turbines has increased as technology advances. Massive 5 MW turbines (150m high) are now being developed for use in locations far from the coast where visual impact is not an issue and winds are stronger and more consistent.

With large offshore wind farms becoming a possibility, many EU maritime countries set about reforming permitting processes to ensure that this new, large scale industrial development at sea was managed in a sustainable manner. Most of these countries are introducing a system of Marine Spatial Planning in line with EU policy to balance competing uses of the seas and have carried out Strategic Environmental Assessment, in line with the EU SEA Directive, to protect the marine environment.

Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands have introduced a buffer zone, banning offshore wind farms apart from small demonstration projects, inside the 12 nautical mile zone (or 22.2 km from the coast) to protect wildlife and scenic amenity. In the United Kingdom, The Crown Estate, the landlord of the UK seabed, has carefully guided offshore wind projects in three rounds of controlled development. Round 1 (2000), acted as a demonstration round, with developments restricted in size (30 turbines/ 90MW) and area (10 Km²). In Round 2 (2003) and Round 3 (2009), developments were moved further offshore into deeper water, with the authorities selecting strategic development zones, many outside 12nm (22.2 Km), and offering them for competitive tender.

Denmark is the only Scandinavian country to have espoused offshore wind in any sizeable amount. The Danish Government sponsors all big offshore wind developments, which provide a showcase for its wind industry, a major employer. The Danish Energy Agency is a ‘one stop shop’ planning authority, responsible for electricity generating installations at sea. Potential sites are selected by the authorities following rigorous environmental analysis and generally offered for development by competitive tender. As in the rest of Europe, the trend is to move development further from sensitive shorelines with the latest government sponsored project, Horns Rev 2, situated 30km off shore. To date, turbine size has been largely limited to around 2MW with none of the new generation of massive turbines (3MW +) installed.

Sweden has built just one relatively large offshore wind farm. With untapped on land generation supply far in excess of demand, there is no rationale for building offshore wind at twice the cost of onshore projects.

In Norway, various offshore wind projects proposed by private developers have been refused on environmental grounds, with none so far installed. The Government has decided to adopt a watchful preparation approach and has recently drafted legislation on Offshore Renewable Energy Production, Proposition No 17 (2007-2009) to the Storting, which states “work will begin immediately on assessing sea areas which would be suitable for offshore wind development and thereby for a possible decision to invite licence applications. It is too early to say when such an opening could be relevant. That will depend in part on technology and cost developments as well as European demand “. Norway is currently developing the world’s first large scale floating turbine. This new technology will allow turbines to be floated out to sea and moored far offshore with no visual impact and less disturbance to marine ecosystems

Southern European countries are also proving slow to espouse offshore wind for a variety of reasons including possible impact on vital coastal tourist industry. France, Spain and Italy are overhauling permitting regimes to ensure sustainable development. Proposals for near-shore projects have proved highly controversial because of landscape and wildlife issues and no offshore wind farms have yet been installed in these countries.

The cautious approach to this new technology adopted by most EU countries is in sharp contrast to Ireland where the drive for offshore wind has been developer-led, with no overall strategic planning.

Offshore Wind Ireland

Beyond the Reach of Planning

To protect the marine environment and ensure sustainable development, other EU countries have controlled offshore wind farm development by a variety of means e.g. central planning, government selection of potential development areas, introduction of buffer zones, limiting size of offshore wind farms, strategic environmental assessment, competitive tendering, etc. In Ireland, none of the above measures were introduced.

1. Developer-led planning

There was no national strategic plan for the use of our marine space or for the development of offshore renewables in a sustainable manner. On the contrary, the drive for offshore wind was entirely developer-led. There was no prior selection of potential development zones by the authorities and no competitive tender. Developers were permitted to pick out extensive sites, close to scenic coastlines, on “a first come served basis” presumably on the basis of potential profitability. Sites selected were largely on shallow sandbanks, a wildlife-rich habitat listed for protection under the EC Habitats Directive. Foreshore leases for construction were granted by the Minister for the Marine under outdated legislation - The Foreshore Act 1933 - drawn up 80 years ago before any large-scale offshore developments were envisaged.

2. Lax Government Guidelines

Offshore Electricity Generating Stations - Note for Intending Developers 2001, the key document which governed offshore wind farm development from 2001- 2009, gives some idea of the virtual carte blanche presented to developers with regard to site selection and size of projects. On the critical issue of distance from shore, the Note states that offshore wind farms will “generally not be allowed within 5 Km (3 miles) of the shore”. No limit is put on the scale of the wind farms. Accordingly, the number and size of turbines ( hundreds of turbines, up to 150m high ) proposed and permitted close to Ireland’s coastline inside the12 nautical mile zone, is out of line with good international practice.

3. Outdated National Legislation

The Foreshore Act 1933, the primary legislation controlling development in coastal waters, was not reformed although it was widely acknowledged to be “not fit for purpose”. Under this legislation, drawn up before offshore wind farms were envisaged, developers applied to the Minister for the Marine for foreshore leases to construct two of the biggest offshore wind farms in the world on sites which they had selected in Ireland’s sensitive inshore waters. The Minister had total discretion to award foreshore leases, essentially planning permission. There was no statutory involvement of local authorities and no public right of appeal.

4. Breach of European Environmental Legislation

In granting these extensive foreshore leases and in continuing to consider lease and licence applications for offshore wind farms under the Foreshore Act 1333, Ireland is in breach of key provisions of the Consolidated Environmental Impact Assessment Directive 85/337/EEC, notably Article 10A, by failing to have in place access to a review procedure of decisions to grant consent which is "fair, equitable and not prohibitively expensive". The lack of an appeal procedure in relation to foreshore planning decisions is a key factor preventing Ireland from ratifying the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters.

The European Communities Directive 2001/42/EC (the SEA Directive) requires that a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) be carried out in advance of implementing public plans and programmes likely to have an impact on the environment. SEA is recognised as a key planning tool, as it helps authorities to assess possible cumulative effects of developments, such as offshore renewables, on the marine environment in advance of permitting construction. This Directive was transposed into Irish law in 2004.

In 2005, Treasury Holdings, a major Irish property developer, through a subsidiary, Eco Wind Power, was awarded a foreshore lease for a massive 1100 MW Codling Wind Park, 12km off Bray Head, County Wicklow. This development, with 220 turbines and an overall area of 50km², was clearly going to have very significant impacts on the marine environment and adjoining coastal landscapes in Dublin’s Killiney Bay and Wicklow. This was particularly so when taken in conjunction with the 520 MW Arklow Bank Wind Park, already approved (2002) further south, 10 km off the Wicklow coast. However, as these projects were entirely developer-led, proposed without any public plan or programme in place, the Irish government managed to avoid its clear obligations under the SEA Directive. A foreshore lease was granted by Minister for the Marine, Noel Dempsey for Codling Wind Park in 2005. (No public announcement was made following the granting of the lease, arguably the biggest development ever permitted in County Wicklow).

The permitting of the Codling Wind Park brought the total amount of offshore wind power permitted in Wicklow’s near-shore zone, by end 2005, to 1620MW, 60% more than the 1000MW of offshore wind power then installed worldwide. This extensive industrial development was approved without any Strategic Environmental Assessment to assess cumulative environmental impact. In effect, Wicklow has been deprived of the protection intended by the SEA Directive.

5. Speculation

The 99- year, foreshore lease awarded in 2002 for the 520MW Arklow Bank Wind Park on the sole authority of Minister for the Marine, Frank Fahey, was sold on in 2008 to an international power company. The selling price, which reflected the size of the extensive development permitted, presumably netted a very significant profit for the Irish promoters. (Airtricity/NTR). This permitting of sale of a foreshore lease before construction appears to be contrary to the official Irish government guidelines for normal practice which pertained at the time.. Developers profited from laying claim to a valuable part of Ireland’s territory which lay beyond the reach of our planning system.

Following this sale, there was a rush of applications by developers for foreshore licences for initial investigations in Irish near-shore waters, mainly off the East coast.

CCA Comment

Under outdated and undemocratic legislation, and in a complete planning vacuum, two massive near shore wind farms which will change the face of Ireland’s east coast, have been approved off Wicklow, in a manner entirely inappropriate to the scale and impact of development.

The vast majority of Irish people are unaware of the large scale developments which have been permitted in State waters without any democratic control.

Further information:

Coastal Concern Alliance: Details of Irish Offshore Wind Farms

Coastal Concern Alliance: Speculation in Foreshore Leases