Nature+ Energy

In this blog, Research Assistant, Emma King, introduces this exciting new project focusing on biodiversity on wind farms in Ireland.

Climate change and biodiversity loss are joint emergencies, jeopardising the future of the planet’s ecosystems. Ireland has set out targets to mitigate climate change in a new Climate Action Plan, aiming to increase our reliance on renewable energies to 80% by 2030. While green renewable energies can be part of the solution to tackle the climate crisis, they can potentially cause negative impacts on the surrounding biodiversity (e.g. Dai et al. (2015), Thacker et al. (2018)). If planned, managed, and mitigated against correctly, however, the land surrounding renewable infrastructure poses a potential opportunity for biodiversity restoration and protection (Gorman et al. 2021). There are currently 300 operational onshore wind farms in the Republic of Ireland, sited on a range of habitat types, including forest, bog, and agricultural settings. Thus, wind farms are sited on a lot of natural capital that provides ecosystem services, which, until now, has not been quantified. In a new report from SEAI, Renewable energy accounted for just over 40% of electricity generated in Ireland during 2020, with the wind sector making up 86% of the renewable energy produced (SEAI, 2021). The growth of the Irish wind industry presents a new opportunity to develop methods and measures to maximise the biodiversity that surrounds these sites, in turn protecting the ecosystem services this natural capital provides for us.

Nature+ Energy is a collaborative approach to providing these solutions. A joint venture between research (SFI/MaREI, Trinity College Dublin, & Maynooth University) and industry (Wind Energy Ireland and eight industry partners), this project aims to add significant value to green renewable energy by maximising the positive impacts of wind farms on biodiversity and ecosystem service provision, while mitigating the negative effects. The collaborative nature of this project provides an opportunity to showcase how research and industry can work together to develop innovative solutions for the environment, economy, and society. Using a Natural Capital Accounting approach, we will be able to quantify the stocks of natural capital within and surrounding Irish wind farms in standardised way. This will enable biodiversity to be brought to the table and accounted for in business decisions. Using the data we gather for our natural capital accounts, we will develop a decision-support tool for land-use planning and natural capital enhancement, and a natural capital asset and risk register which will enable land managers of wind farms to make more informed decisions about how they manage biodiversity in the areas surrounding the turbines. Furthermore, companies are increasingly incorporating biodiversity into their business strategies, but can often lack site-specific knowledge to best achieve this. The data that we will collect during the project will be used to develop an evidence-based biodiversity action plan for the onshore wind sector in Ireland, as well as individual plans for the representative wind farm sites we will study. Environmental monitoring is often a critical component of both pre-construction and post-construction planning requirements for wind farms, which can be a large investment of both time and money for operating companies. Part of this project aims to develop a new environmental monitoring system for wind farms, which will enhance data resolution, while reducing running costs. At the moment, we are prioritising acoustic monitoring of birds and bats but we are broadening the sensor arrays in the system to enable much more efficient monitoring of wildlife in the vicinity of wind farms and potentially the development of improved mitigation measures.

Figure 1. Types of habitats wind farms can be sited upon, including plantation forestry (left and top right), including a settlement pond fenced in the top right photo; and a wind turbine on a bog (bottom right).


We have selected several representative wind farm sites across the country, in collaboration with our industry partners, for which we will develop Natural Capital Accounts and biodiversity action plans. Currently, we are collating data for each of these sites from environmental impact assessments, environmental monitoring reports, GIS datasets etc. We have also conducted a preliminary site visit to most of our sites, which has given us a better idea of what is there that we can study in greater detail, what type of landscapes we are looking at and we get to see, of course, the wind farm infrastructure itself. We were also able to put out an acoustic recorder at one of our sites to collect sample data on bat and bird calls which will be used to help inform a model of the environmental monitoring system. Talking to site managers and site ecologists during our visits gave us a better understanding of the extent of the biodiversity which can exist within the wind farm surroundings. In addition, we were able to identify many areas within each of our survey sites which could potentially be interesting features to study. Settlement ponds, for example, are a novel feature at some of the sites we visited which are formed when gravel is removed to create the turbine hardstand and then infills naturally with water, so it will be important to assess biodiversity within those. The site visits also made us realise the scale of these sites, they can cover a large area and have a mosaic of habitat types within them, which can pose a challenge for fieldwork logistics but also make them quite exciting to study! The next steps for the project are to start organising fieldwork for the upcoming season and to put out more bird and bat acoustic recorders to help build the environmental monitoring system.

About the author:

Emma King has an MSc in Biodiversity and Conservation from Trinity College Dublin and a BSc in Zoology from National University of Ireland, Galway. Emma is working with Trinity Nature+ Energy PIs Ian Donohue, Yvonne Buckley and Jane Stout.

References

Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications (2021). Climate Action Plan 2021. Dublin, Ireland: Government of Ireland.

Gorman, C.E., Torsney, A., Gaughran, A., McKeon, C., White, C., Donohue, I., Stout, J., and Buckley, Y.M. (2021) Small scale study of the impacts of climate change mitigation measures on biodiversity. Dublin, IrelandL Nature+, Trinity Centre for Biodiversity and Sustainable Nature-base Solutions.

Natural Capital Ireland (2021) Natural Capital FAQs. Available at: https://www.naturalcapitalireland.com/resources [Accessed: 28th January 2022].

Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (2021) Energy in Ireland: 2021 Report. Dublin, Ireland: Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland.

Wind Energy Ireland (2022) Facts and Stats. Available at:  https://windenergyireland.com/about-wind/facts-stats [Accessed: 28th January 2022].

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