Controversy is raging. Although the development of offshore wind is one of the keys for the EU to achieve its decarbonization goals, the EU Court of Auditors has quarantined it.
The body has accused the European Commission of underestimating the ecological consequences of the deployment of offshore energy infrastructures, a key sector for achieving climate targets in which 17 billion EU euros have been invested over the last 15 years, but which can be "harmful" to the environment.
The European auditors express fears "that the expansion across Europe of marine renewable energy will be detrimental to the marine environment, both below and above sea level." "The deployment of marine renewable energy raises a number of practical, social and environmental issues that have not yet received sufficient attention," the Court of Auditors says.
Unlike other audits focused on checking whether EU actions and investments in a policy area have proved efficient, this time the report examines in particular "whether the development of marine renewable energy is sustainable in the EU."
To this end, the members of the court held interviews with staff of the European Commission, member states, the European Investment Bank, major industry associations, environmental NGOs and external experts, and audited in particular the cases of Germany, Spain, France and the Netherlands.
The auditors detect a lack of study and knowledge of the implications of marine energy, and in particular of "the cumulative effects on the marine environment" caused "by all past, present and future activities".
This lack of information raises possible negative effects of marine energy on biodiversity, such as the collision of birds against windmills or maintenance vessels, changes in water quality due to the release of pollutants, displacement of species due to noise, degradation of habitats or changes in bird migration patterns due to variations in the electromagnetic field.
However, it can also bring positive consequences, such as the recovery of habitats due to the exclusion of human activities in marine energy zones or the proliferation of certain species of fish and invertebrates due to the "reef effect": a Dutch company will test new methods of mussel farming in an offshore wind farm.
"Numerous environmental aspects related to the planned deployment of marine renewables have yet to be recognized" and "given the scale of this deployment in the coming years, it may leave a significant environmental footprint on marine life," the Court notes.
In two countries with strong fishing fleets such as France and Spain, major conflicts have not yet arisen over the development of marine energy, say the auditors, who warn that the deployment of infrastructure will involve a progressive reduction of access to fishing areas, which could reduce income from the activity and increase competition between fishermen.
In areas with marine energy facilities, "some increases in fish density" have also been observed, although the auditors note that "the improvement in fish population on a larger scale is uncertain".
The development of the sector will also have effects on employment and if the number of workers in that industry has increased from 400 professionals in the EU in 2009 to about 77,9000 in 2020, there is "a risk of job losses in the fisheries sector", in a context where "there are few studies on the socio-economic implications of the development" of these technologies.
60 Gigawatts in 2030
The EU has set itself the objective of reducing its CO2 emissions by 55% in 2030 compared to 1990, for which it is necessary to electrify the production system and generate this energy from renewable sources, which at the end of the decade should account for 42.5% of final energy consumption in the Community bloc, compared to 22% in 2021.
In 2020, when the European Commission adopted the EU Strategy on offshore renewable energy, the entire Community block had 12 GW of this type of generation installed, but Brussels set non-binding targets of 60 GW of offshore wind in 2030 and 300 GW in 2050 (1 GW and 40 GW respectively for oceanic wind, which generates energy thanks to waves, currents and tides).