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New energy projects – potential impacts on nature

New energy projects – potential impacts on nature

By EcoNetwork Committee, compiled by
Sue Olsson, Vice-President.

We’ve heard a lot about how climate impacts bring social, environmental and economic impacts. In our effort to decarbonise our world to reduce climate impacts, a raft of new energy projects being rolled out create some concern as to how they may impact our natural environment and wildlife. This is what has been termed the Green vs Green dilemma. (See EcoUpdate 21).

Climate impacts are broad and varied

Locally we’ve seen the impacts of storms on our coastal environment. Impacts of high temperatures are most dramatically seen where coral bleaching is becoming too frequent for coral reefs to recover. Similarly kelp forests and seagrass meadows are suffering, and consequently all the wildlife that depend on them – and ultimately on humans who depend on the wildlife for food and income.

Droughts, floods, storms and wildfire are becoming more frequent and severe, each with their consequences on the natural environment and wildlife.

The consequences of climate impacts are seemingly greater and more devastating than impacts from new energy projects. Many impacts from new energy projects can be significantly reduced with informed planning and sympathetic execution. Though that is not always happening. Misinformation also fuels concerns.

Solar farms and battery storage on degraded land

Placement on degraded land avoids clearing bushland or using fertile agricultural land – unfortunately our inadequate planning laws do not ensure this. Clearing valuable habitat has needless impacts on biodiversity.

Visual impacts are a concern, particularly with the industrialisation of rural areas, though impacts can be minimised with thoughtful planting.

In the New England Tablelands, the Building Better Biodiversity on Solar Farms Guide demonstrates strategies and practical methods to provide a nature positive outcome on degraded land hosting solar farms.

Unused parts of the degraded land can be rehabilitated with local native grasses and low shrubs to encourage insects, increase biodiversity, stabilise soils against erosion and provide some cooling benefits.

While farmers who graze sheep under solar panels say it improves productivity, with panels providing shelter for sheep, and encouraging healthier pasture growth from shade and their condensation “drip lines”. Sheep trim the grass, reducing maintenance costs and fire risk. A mutually beneficial arrangement.

Impacts of wind turbines on bats and birds

Research into the land-based human impacts on birds (USA) clearly shows the impacts of wind turbines on birds are minimal compared to other sources of mortality, particularly cats.

In Australia, bird mortality likely follows a similar pattern for threats from various hazards. While we’re a smaller and less populated country, the absolute numbers for each hazard will be lower, though still alarming.

  • In Australia, cats, the biggest killer of birds, are reported to kill more than I million birds everyday, approaching 400 million annually.
  • Bird window strikes are also significant – how often have you heard a loud thud on the window or found a bird dead on the path or in your garden? In Australia, we don’t have bird strike statistics, but if there was just one bird death per building, we are talking millions of deaths annually.

Fisheries bycatch threatens seabirds and migratory waterbirds

Offshore hazards to seabirds and migratory waterbirds are fundamentally different to the hazards on land. While there are natural threats in the open oceans, seabirds are in serious danger from fisheries bycatch.

  • Longline fishing is a particular threat to albatrosses, hooking and drowning these endangered birds.
  • Trawl fisheries are depleting seabird populations, particularly albatrosses and petrels, who are killed when hit by cables connecting to the trawl nets or entangled in nets as the hunt fish.
  • “Fishing down the food web’ means less food for seabirds. With overfishing of large predatory fish such as tuna, sharks and swordfish, fishing pressure shifts to smaller prey species, impacting seabirds dependent on the small shoaling fish and potentially destabilises entire marine ecosystems.
  • Gillnet fisheries remain an issue in coastal waters (UN ban in the high seas) where accidental entanglement of large numbers of pelagic birds, especially species that pursue fish underwater, such as grebes, cormorants and auks (include penguins).
  • Shellfisheries can impact migratory waterbirds where unsustainable shellfish exploitation reduce considerable food resources required to survive at important wintering and staging sites on their frequently epic journeys.

A significant threat to migratory birds is their ongoing loss of breeding and foraging habitat as wetlands are drained and developed.

Mitigation strategies for bird collisions with wind turbines

Proper siting out of flight paths, targeted curtailment of turbines (for instance to avoid peak dawn/dusk or seasonal flight periods or rotating the rotor plane our of direction of migration), appropriate blade heights, acoustic deterrents, post and turbine colour patterns, and consideration of environmental variables, can all help reduce wildlife strikes.

Radar early warning systems that automatically shut down turbines in the flight paths of on-coming birds, such as raptors, are available and should be required where pertinent. Many of these mitigation techniques are detailed further in an environmental consultants report into Impacts on birds from Offshore Wind Farms in Australia

As an example from the above report, p30, infrastructure design can influence ecological risk. Modelling … “demonstrated that raising hub height and using fewer, larger turbines are effective measures for reducing bird collision risk. This approach increases the distance between the lowest point of the turbine and the sea surface. This may be particularly relevant in an area used by many seabirds (such as petrels, shearwaters, and albatrosses) that use a flight technique known as dynamic soaring that utilises the wind shear stress near to the sea surface, meaning they are predominantly at heights less than 30 m above the surface.”

Some birds may avoid turbine blades

Vattendall, a leading European energy company, commissioned studies into mortality of geese and cranes on land-based wind power. Various methods including physical examination of the area around wind turbines to find bird carcasses every 3 days — all carcasses and remnants found were attributed to collision with turbines even if other means were apparent — as well as via binoculars, telescopes and radar, found few mortalities and that birds are far better at avoiding turbine blades than previously thought. The report is being submitted to a scientific journal for peer review.

Monitoring of seabird behaviour — herring gulls, gannets, kittiwakes and great black-backed gulls — around offshore wind farms in the Aberdeen Bay in the North Sea on the east coast of Scotland by Vattenfall over two years used unique technical combination of radar and cameras. These created three-dimensional image of birds’ flight patterns and how they avoid rotor blades. Each species had a differing pattern of avoidance. During the two-year study, not a single collision between a bird and a rotor blade was recorded, even though birds are at risk of coming into contact with turbine blades. Additional studies are tracking seabirds at the same offshore wind farm with artificial intelligence, AI, to gather more detailed information of the birds’ movements in the wind farm.

These studies are heartening (providing they’re verified when peer reviewed), though caution is required in directly applying turbine avoidance to Australian birds — most species of particular concern locally are different, with possible differing behaviours to those in the Aberdeen Bay study, different prevailing conditions and differing offshore wind farm development. The monitoring studies are performed once the wind turbines are erected, whether on land or at sea.

Gould’s Petrel off Port Stephens Coastline. Photo: Mick Roderick.

Precautionary Principle required

When dealing with threatened species, a precautionary approach is required and extensive research is critical before turbines are erected. For example, our most endangered seabird, Gould’s Petrel, nests on Cabbage Tree Island. 100% of its foraging is to the south. Foraging it known along the continental shelf break and offshore of the slope out to 44 km offshore during daylight hours. However flight paths further afield to foraging grounds in the Tasman Sea and Great Australia Bight are not known. Gould’s Petrel descends from heights of over 300m and if the turbine zone and their flight path overlap, consequences could be severe as turbine tips are at up 260m and petrels could fly directly through the zone.

Birdlife Australia, in their submission on the proposed offshore windfarms … ‘recommends that the proposed Declaration Area (Map 1) be reduced to remove the north-eastern area … This area is a key corridor to access foraging habitat for the species, and BirdLife Australia believes that failure to remove turbines from this area will result in adverse impacts on Gould’s Petrel that may be catastrophic for the long-term survival of the species.’

The Feasibility Licence issued in July 2024 to the Novocastrian Offshore Wind Project (Map 2) is for a much smaller area than the area ‘Declared’ in July 2023 (shown on both maps), which in turn was smaller than the zone originally proposed (Map 1).

Map 1: The Hunter declared offshore wind area (green on map) was reduced from that originally proposed — in the Notice of Proposal (grey on map)
Map 2: The Feasibility Licence (yellow on map) issued July 2024, is for a much smaller area than the Hunter Declared Area in July 2023.

We are hopeful that this progressive refinement demonstrates the Federal Government’s willingness to respond to community concerns.  The Licence area is now further south and not directly east of Port Stephens or the Myall Coast, and remains no less than 20km offshore.

However it is unclear whether additional feasibility licences will be granted for the northern sector, and what consideration is to be provided for bird flyways such as for the Gould’s Petrel.

Visual impacts of wind turbines

It is well known that wind turbines are strongly rejected in landscapes experienced as very beautiful and attractive, while they are seen by many as relatively unproblematic or even enhancing in landscapes experienced as ugly and unattractive.

It is known that wind turbines in the vicinity of one’s own place of residence are judged differently than those elsewhere.

In the largest onshore windfarm in the southern hemisphere, ‘renewable energy farmers’ look to the future. The MacIntyre turbines on Queensland’s Southern Downs are a financial windfall for some farmers — but others are feeling left out. With payments estimated at around $40,000 per turbine annually, farm diversification is enticing and is a survival option with severe droughts predicted as climates continue to change. However neighbours are currently not compensated though impacted visually in this project. Recognition of direct neighbour and community benefits is beginning to spread and provided in locally relevant contexts.

Discussion on the visual evaluations of wind turbines, whether judgments of scenic beauty or of moral desirability, provided interesting outcomes. In a study comparing the same environment with different tall structures, researchers evaluated the response to wind turbines, transmission towers and incinerator chimneys.


  • visually similar structures are judged to have different impact on scenic beauty
  • different visual evaluations are explained by differences in moral associations
  • statements about visual impact are strongly influenced by implicit moral judgments.

We have lived with the Gan Gan communication tower on Lily Hill in Nelson Bay for many years and it seems to have community acceptance. From various high locations in Tomaree National Park, about 5km away, it is visible though tends to fade away. Standing at total height of 216.34m, the 55.34m tall tower is atop the 161m Lily Hill.

Community reaction and acceptance to Gan Gan tower’s visual impact is seemingly quite different to those of the wind turbines proposed over 20km offshore and reaching a maximum permitted height of 260m – from the sea surface to the highest point of the blade tip. Purported to appear like matchsticks on the horizon, they’re likely less noticeable than the bulky coal barges. This video demonstration helps to show what offshore wind farms look like from certain distances from the shore. This depiction matches observation of offshore windfarms some locals have seen in their travels past Brighton in the UK.

Of concern is the amount of misinformation

Online posts claiming offshore wind farms endanger whales are one example. Greenpeace, which is dedicated to protecting whales says offshore wind farms aren’t killing whales. It points to the stranding of several humpback whales on the east coast of the USA, which shock jocks and some politicians blamed on new offshore wind developments. However, after scientists investigated, they found almost all of the humpback strandings had clear signs of vessel strike – most likely container ships and other large vessels killed whales. Greenpeace says there have been plenty of studies into the effects of offshore wind farms on whales and marine mammals. Not a single peer-reviewed study has found that offshore wind farms kill whales.

Climate change — caused by the burning of fossil fuels like gas, coal and oil – is a huge threat to both our terrestrial life and our oceans and marine life.

Further reading:

‘Absolutely incorrect’: The evidence is in on whales and offshore wind farms – Sydney Morning Herald 11 July 2024

New guide shows how solar farms can improve biodiversity – Community Power Agency 15 May 2024

See EcoNetwork’s fact sheets on offshore windfarms and issues associated with nuclear which is not a feasible alternative to renewable energy projects.

Published: 1 Jul 2024