As demand for renewable electricity becomes higher in the global shift away from fossil fuels, wind farms are becoming more and more common. Wind-generated electricity is a cleaner and often cheaper energy source than electricity that comes from industrial processes that use fossil fuels, such as burning coal. As with anything, though, wind energy has its downsides: one of the largest of which is space. Wind farms and the turbines within them need space to spin freely, which means that finding land to build them on is often difficult. The solution in a lot of places around the world is called “offshore wind,” a term that simply means building wind farms out at sea. Offshore wind is great in a lot of ways. It generates more electricity than onshore wind farms because wind is faster and stronger out at sea. It also means that people don’t experience as much noise pollution.
Despite the benefits of offshore wind for people, for a long time marine scientists worried about the impact of putting wind turbines in the ocean floor. The ocean floor is a sensitive habitat, and it gets damaged frequently by human activities such as trawling for fish. If fishing nets are enough to hurt this habitat, then surely drilling gigantic turbines into it would do even more damage—right? Research from scientists based out of the University of Hull in England showed that, surprisingly, this may not be entirely true.
In offshore wind farms, there are several approaches to building turbines, but in many cases the turbines are drilled into the ocean floor. This is called a “monopile” foundation. The base of a monopile turbine is surrounded by something called “scour” which refers to the piles of rocks, gravel, or synthetic mats (that form a kind of lattice) that developers put down around the base. These materials serve the purpose of protecting the base, while capturing more sediments to build up the protective layer over time.
This study revealed that, as sand and other sediments from the ocean floor build up in and around the rocks, gravel, or synthetic mats, a habitat can be created. If the scour materials build up enough seafloor sediment, it allows marine plants and animals to “colonize,” or move into the area. The study showed that different scour materials tend to create different types of habitat. Synthetic lattice materials ended up creating a habitat similar to naturally occurring seagrass beds, and were colonized by seagrasses, seahorses, pipefish, and small fish like gobies. Scour made of rocks, on the other hand, created surfaces for barnacles, worms, and sea squirts to live on or underneath. This, in turn, drew larger predatory animals like lobsters, crabs, reef fish, and eels to the rocky habitat. With the presence of these scour habitats, the diversity of habitats on the ocean floor increases, which also helps increase the diversity of different species that call a region home. Biodiversity is critically important in keeping ecosystems healthy, for the benefit of other animals as well as humans. In all, this is an exciting finding for both fish and wind farms.
Doherty, N. (2019). A view off an offshore wind farm, under a blue sky. Unplash.com. Unplash. Retrieved 2023, from https://unsplash.com/photos/white-electic-windmill-pONBhDyOFoM.
Jennifer, W. C., & Elliott, M. (2009). The habitat-creation potential of article offshore wind farms. Wiley Online Library. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/we.324