Offshore wind proponents are exploring “turbine reefs”—coral habitats planted on wind turbine bases—as a solution to the intersecting crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.
“As we build out offshore wind energy, there is great potential to enhance and create new habitats,” said Carl LoBue, The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) New York oceans program director. “Offshore wind farms could support entire communities of marine life.”
Human activity—overfishing and unmitigated greenhouse gas emissions—is driving ocean heating and acidification that have left marine habitats in dire straits. Over the last 50 years, populations of species such as sharks and rays have withered by more than 70%, reports Energy Monitor. At a recent UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon, Secretary-General António Guterres lamented that humans have “taken the ocean for granted” and declared that humanity faces an ocean emergency. “We must turn the tide,” he warned.
Biologists are looking for solutions in a burgeoning offshore wind energy sector—expected to increase capacity from 40 gigawatts in 2020 to 630 gigawatts by 2050. Armed with the knowledge that coral reefs provide habitats for around 32% of marine species, they hope the bases of turbines can foster habitats as a bulwark against ocean biodiversity loss.
The science is still in its early stages, but several groups are already working on strategies to recreate marine ecosystems. In one prominent trial, Danish energy giant Ørsted’s ReCoral program is collecting indigenous coral spawn that washes up onshore and incubating the spawn in laboratories. After it grows to a viable larval stage, the spawn is then transported to wind turbine foundations where it can, theoretically, form a new coral reef.
“Naturally, given its novelty, the developers of this bold initiative have a number of significant challenges to tackle as they look to progress beyond their proof-of-concept trial towards a fully scaled-up deployment,” said Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, professor of marine studies at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. “It is encouraging to see, however, an industrial player collaborating with academics and environmental NGOs in an effort to secure the kind of ambitious and large-scale outcomes that are required.”
If it works, establishing habitats on wind turbines could also help stabilize turbine foundations, which are threatened by erosion at their base. A recent TNC report studied nature-based designs for offshore wind structures and identified ways to stabilize turbines alongside a “massive opportunity to create, enhance, and expand marine habitat for native fish, shellfish, and other species.”
“By creating turbine reefs in partnership with offshore wind developers, we highlight how offshore wind can be part of the climate and biodiversity solution,” said Tricia K. Jedele, TNC’s offshore wind policy manager. “We can enhance marine habitat and generate clean energy at the same time.”