Offshore Wind Farming: Free Clean Energy or Nuisance?

Offshore Wind Farming: Free Clean Energy or Nuisance?
by Andrew Gumbel


Of all renewable resources, wind energy is seemingly one of the cleanest. Simply put, wind turbines use bladed propellers to “harvest” the wind, which spins the propellers and drives a turbine that powers a generator. However, this seemingly clean energy is met by many, including the US President, with a good deal of apprehension. Critics claim the unsightliness of the turbines, infrastructure inconvenience, and threat to wildlife are all reasons to oppose the turbines. In fact, a summation of 76 studies of wind turbines based in the US and Canada found that wind turbines kill between 214,000 and 368,000 birds annually.[1] Ironically this pales in comparison to the amount of bird deaths due to cats, which was between 1.4 billion to 3.7 billion deaths annually.


Although arguments can still be made against land-based wind farming, a big point of contention right now is offshore wind farming. These turbines are constructed offshore and harness the power of high ocean wind speeds to produce much higher amounts of power as opposed to land based turbines. However, they may also have drawbacks. Studies have shown that the construction and operation of the turbines may lead to instability in a marine ecosystem. First, the turbines must be constructed by pile driving into the continental shelf. This could heavily affect the ocean soundscape[2], which whales and other species use to communicate. This disruption could negatively impact migratory patterns or mating among species such as sperm whales or right whales, two types of animals which have been shown to stop vocalizing when sufficiently disrupted by anthropogenic sound. The pylons of wind turbines could also create artificial reefs, potentially disrupting the predator-prey dynamic of an ocean ecosystem by causing marine species to migrate and live around these turbines.


Another friction point for offshore wind energy comes from the anthropomorphic side of the equation. Fishermen are concerned about how the wind turbines could affect their livelihood in the long term. Off Rhode Island, the US’s first offshore wind farm has already been constructed, but it has been met by apprehension from the locals[3]. Fishermen fear how zoning of the turbines may affect their normal spots, and how the operation of these turbines will affect their catch rate. For example, during construction of wind farms, a large area around the zone is buoyed off which can affect how fishermen travel through a site. Depending on undersea cable arrangement, wind farms can also affect what kind of gear fishermen use around the site because towed gear and other bottom fishing methods can disrupt the cables.


For the US to proceed with offshore wind farming, it is important to conduct heavy research on our first few existing ones. It is beneficial that we already have our first farm off Rhode Island, because we can use it as a research area for long term effects. Using this farm, scientists will be able to conduct vetted and detailed surveys over several fishing seasons to ensure that the turbines don’t have a significant negative impact on marine life. These surveys could look at fish congregations, affects on marine mammal migration patterns, and the turbine’s affect on reef/bottom based communities. Although they are currently conducting these types of surveys, time is an essential ingredient in viewing the overall impact of these new sources of energy. Additionally, energy companies will be able to use this data and fishermen input to place the turbines in areas where they will have the least impact on human and marine life. With these measures in mind, I think offshore wind farming could be a viable, safe way to bring more clean energy to the United States and begin diminishing our reliance on fossil fuels.

Lukas G. comment
When discussing wind turbines and bird deaths I often times have seen the cat statistic/argument. While I am a strong proponent of wind energy, I do not think that the “cat stat” argument is the strongest. Its like saying that just because one murderer doesn’t kill as many people as another, that he is a better person.
To me there are much stronger arguments to be made. I think the biggest strength of wind energy is its ability to produce energy without emissions, something that you highlight in your article.

After recently completing a reading on the ethics of research, I find the point about the RI Wind Farm interesting. Do we allow the risk of the people and their livelihood to occur in order to gain data that may serve to benefit more people than it harms?

Luke B. comment:
I was unaware of the Rhode Island wind farm’s potential as a test site; I will have to keep up with that in the future. This was very interesting in that you talked about a couple of issues I have never heard brought up. The potential disruption of migration habits and displacement of fish and fishermen, is a potentially much worse problem than the birds that are killed by wind turbines. I think it is important to take the amount of pollution that we avoid by using wind energy, because in many cases the smoke and emissions of the coal we would be using does much more damage than anything the turbine causes. I will be interested to hear the results of the study of Rhode Island, because it could have very large implications for the future of wind energy.
Jack G. comment:
Great blog, loved the comparison between the birth deaths via wind turbine and domestic cat. Always good to look at those numbers with some kind of perspective. While I agree with you about conducting more research in the US on our pre-existing wind turbines, I think it is potentially just as useful to look internationally and see the effects that offshore wind is having on other countries like Denmark, the UK, and Germany- all of which have considerably more capacity installed than we currently do. Lastly, I agree with your conclusion- offshore wind has a lot of potential to play a big role in the future fuel mix- especially considering the fact that many offshore wind sites are close to big cities with high demand.
Taylor comment:
Great write-up. I personally think wind farms, including both those onshore and off, are a great alternative source of energy. One of the counter-arguments against it, as you mentioned, is the amount of birds that are killed by the spinning blades. I find it ironic that a large portion of the outcry on behalf of the birds is not coming from traditional environmentalists, but rather from those opposed to sustainable energy. For this reason, I think the statistic you cited comparing the amout of birds killed by wind turbines to those killed by cats did a great job of putting things into perspective.

I also did not realize the full extent of the environmental concerns that accompany the installation of offshore wind farms. Specifically, I was unaware of how the wind turbines would affect the communication between, and thus the migration of, multiple species of whales. As you mentioned, this is definitely a cause for concern and should be sufficiently researched and accounted for when wind farms are installed. All in all, I think your piece gave a fair and impartial analysis of offshore wind farms.

Brianna comment:
Great blog! You thoroughly addressed various problems that people don’t often consider when thinking about wind power, because of its obvious clean energy benefits. I wonder if there is more research of other wind farms in other countries that would give more insight on the marine effects. Also, while reading your article I wonder if there might be better sites in the ocean than others. Could we potentially find locations that would have a much smaller effect on migration, reproduction, etc? I think doing research to determine how to choose locations to mitigate the effects could help encourage the implementation of wind farms, especially as clean energy is so critical for the world. Finally, I agree that a lot more research needs to be done to generally discover where offshore wind turbines will have negative effects. We must not turn a blind eye to the unintended consequences of choosing to implement off shore wind turbines.
Kim-Lin comment:
Andrew, I think blog was very well written and I agree that more research definitely needs to be done. I had no idea that there was a farm off of Rhode Island, so I agree that it will be a great source of research for the U.S. before it proceeds (or does not proceed) with wind energy. I do think that fishers will provide a potential barrier to the implementation of more energy in the future, and I wonder how the results from a Rhode Island study will affect their views on wind. Lastly, I like the bird death statistics. I think a lot of people use that as “go-to con” of wind energy, without actually knowing how small a number that is compared to the number of birds that are killed by cats each year.
Michael W. comment
This post was very interesting and I enjoyed how you focused on the negatives of offshore wind farms rather than solely preaching the benefits of the technology and ignoring the consequences. I am a strong proponent of wind energy, but it is vital to understand both the pros and cons of a particular energy source rather than just one side of the argument. I definitely think more research is necessary on offshore wind turbines because they could have significant detrimental effects on migratory species and I agree with Jack’s earlier comments that proposed more investigation and research on international wind farms. In regards to renewable energy, the United States doesn’t seem to be a leader and following the suit of other nations seems to be a good strategy. I’m curious as to whether the nations that have invested heavily in offshore wind farms have done research on the impact of offshore wind farms. Great work!
Henry comment:
This is a nice piece, and I really agree with your conclusion – do more research. A lot of folks are desperate to switch energy sources, which is understandable given the harmful nature of fossil fuels, but you really have to be careful that the transition is done with as few road bumps as possible. If an offshore wind farm is placed in a poor location and, say, has to be completely removed because it contributes to species endangerment, no one is going to want to built a wind farm for a long time. I think the same kind of patience should be applied to fracking — with patience and research, it could end up providing a relatively clean energy source that ends up killing coal for good (a feat that no other energy source seems poised to do…). But that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening with the oil and gas companies. Lengthy tangent aside…. I enjoyed your writing. Great job.
Cynthia comment:
I really enjoyed reading your blog and think it is such an important topic that the general public needs to learn more about. I really liked how you included the comment about birds killed by wind turbines vs. birds killed by cats! I never would have guessed those numbers.

I go to Nantucket every summer and they already have land-based wind farming but are super hesitant to implement offshore wind farming. Similar to your explanation, people are really concerned about the aesthetics of offshore wind farming, which I think is a silly reason to not use the resources that the offshore wind turbines could capture. I knew a little bit about the hesitance of governments to implement offshore wind turbines but I learned a lot more from your post. For example, I didn’t know about the possible harm to marine ecosystems.

I really appreciated your recommendation and agree that it is crucial that we use the first farms as a source of research moving forward with offshore wind farming as a viable source of clean energy. Hopefully we can figure out how to take more advantage of these resources and figure out how to implement offshore wind farms without causing harm to marine ecosystems and pleasing people aesthetically.
Tommy comment:
I am inclined to be in favor of offshore wind farms, but there simply is not enough research on the topic yet. If we are to combat climate change, which is so detrimental to not only the environment but to industry as well, we need alternative energies. However, the negative impacts on birds and marine animals are concerning. I know there is a lot of push back against wind farms for aesthetic reasons or cost. Still, despite those reasons, I think that wind energy is something that we should absolutely pursue as a country. However, speaking as a proponent of alternative energy sources, I think that if research determines that offshore wind farms are detrimental to marine life, they would probably cause more trouble than they are worth.
Phillip comment:
I think this topic is very interesting, specifically because of the ecological and social tension surrounding the implementation of offshore wind turbines. The comparison you made between the annual number of bird deaths caused by wind turbines and cats was not only clever, but it also identified a common misconception about the ecological ramifications of onshore turbines. While offshore wind turbines have potential for disrupting ecological systems, the main obstacle barring their construction – as you pointed out – is the effect on industries like fishing and tourism. I agree that more research, rooted in both economic and ecological benefit, is needed in order to implement this renewable energy resource effectively on a large-scale.
Adrian comment:
I agree that more research should be done on offshore wind farming and specifically their effects. This will give us a clearer picture of the benefits and drawbacks of the technology, and would likely put any people at ease who concerned about the effect of offshore wind farms to their fishing livelihoods. More research needs to be done on the long term effects of offshore wind farms on migrating bird populations. This would assist in deciding the best locations for offshore wind farm development.

[1] Koch, Wendy. “Wind turbines kill fewer birds than do cats, cell towers.” USA Today. Gannett Satellite Information Network, 15 Sept. 2014. Web. 25 Mar. 2017.

[2] “Impact of offshore wind farms on marine species.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 Oct. 2014. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

[3] “How Rhode Island’s Offshore Wind Farm Affects Fishermen.” How Rhode Island’s Offshore Wind Farm Affects Fishermen | Bostonomix. N.p., 28 Nov. 2016. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.