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Offshore wind projects: Assessing the environmental impact

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An overview of rules and developments in Australia, Germany, Japan, Mexico, the UK and the US

Navigating environmental issues in offshore wind project development

Around the globe, opportunity is on the rise, but regulatory and political challenges persist

Throughout the world, many national and local governments are creating regulatory and commercial environments to encourage developers, lenders and investors to build, finance and invest in offshore wind energy. This has led to an upswing in the number of offshore wind projects being planned and built around the world. Renewable energy generated by offshore wind power is typically consistent with nations' climate change commitments under the Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, offshore wind farms have unique impacts, which are addressed through environmental and natural resource policies and rules.

Governments in many of the key markets for offshore wind investment typically require the environmental and social impacts of a proposed offshore wind project to be assessed and mitigated. The complexity, sophistication and duration of the environmental impact assessment process varies across jurisdictions, and must be carefully evaluated by potential developers and investors. Project proponents also need to be mindful that in most jurisdictions, although to varying degrees, the environmental and social impact assessment
is subject to public scrutiny and comment, and can also be vulnerable to legal challenges.

This report offers an overview of key environmental risks raised by offshore wind projects in six key jurisdictions: Australia; Germany; Japan; Mexico; the UK; and the US. Offshore wind farms operate in many of these jurisdictions. In others, they are increasingly attractive because of higher offshore wind speeds and capacity factors, shallow ocean depths and supportive government policies. We summarize how regulators in these jurisdictions require project proponents to consider impacts to birds, bats, fish and marine mammals during the development process. We also assess how noise associated with the construction and operation of offshore wind projects must be addressed. Finally, we focus on the aesthetic considerations, decommissioning requirements and impacts to fishing, navigation and transportation that arise in the planning, construction and operation of an offshore wind project.


Offshore wind projects face challenges that are not addressed by the regulatory system established for onshore projects


A complex and sophisticated planning and approval process does not prevent opponents from raising environmental challenges—even after project approvals are awarded


Despite strong government support and growing capacity, a lengthy approval process may slow progress


With no offshore precedents, project proponents may find complexity, inconsistency and opportunity

United Kingdom

A global leader in offshore wind power capacity, the UK has seen rapid expansion in the sector

United States

As the offshore wind industry begins to take off, environmental impacts remain key concerns

Offshore wind power gains ground but faces environmental challenges

To maximize its potential, industry players will have to navigate an often-complex web of national, state and local environmental regulation

Offshore wind power gains ground but faces environmental challenges

To maximize its potential, industry players will have to navigate an often-complex web of national, state and local environmental regulation

2 min read

The growing offshore wind industry is expected to continue to create local jobs, boost regional economies and mitigate the effects of climate change globally. However, offshore wind also raises environmental challenges that are often overlooked.

In recent years, the pipeline for new offshore wind farms on the East Coast of the US has grown considerably. Japan's coastal regions are also attracting more interest in offshore wind projects due to strong governmental support And in Europe, particularly in Germany and the UK, the offshore wind industry is even more advanced. Although clean energy demand in these jurisdictions is expected to spur construction of significant numbers of offshore towers, related environmental risks could delay or ultimately sink an offshore wind project if not managed properly and pursuant to local environmental laws.

While environmental regulators in the regions discussed in this report generally mandate assessments of how offshore wind projects will affect the environment, and how those impacts could be mitigated, offshore projects face varied obstacles based on each jurisdiction's environmental laws. For example, while US offshore projects have met substantial opposition related to visual impacts, this consideration tends to be somewhat insignificant in the German wind farm permitting process. Further, different countries often require unique mechanisms and solutions to protect different aspects of the local environment that may be impacted by offshore wind farms (for example, endangered North Atlantic right whales off the coast of the Northeastern United States, or northern Eurasian bittern feeding in Japanese waters).

Wind project developers, financiers, investors, acquirers, contractors and materials suppliers should understand the ways that environmental regulators in different regions require offshore wind projects to manage environmental risks and impacts. These regulatory requirements may present companies in the offshore wind space with unique local compliance obligations, along with potential opportunities to take advantage of similarities among regional requirements.  Going forward, as national, state, provincial and territorial governments rev up green-power mandates to fight climate change, wind sector participants should recognize the legal risks and opportunities surrounding these issues as they develop, support, finance, acquire, sell and operate offshore wind assets.

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