"The development of marine renewable energy in Europe offers ambiguous results," warns the European Court of Auditors in a report published this week. The development of these technologies poses in itself an ecological dilemma because their development"may damage the marine environment". This conclusion is drawn from a Special Report by a group of auditors entitled "Marine renewable energy in the EU: Growth plans are ambitious, but sustainability is still a challenge".
The auditors stress that Europe's green targets with offshore wind are failing. " They will possibly not be easy to achieve" and, in fact, "considerably more effort will be needed to make offshore renewable energy socio-economically and environmentally sustainable." Therefore, the Court points out that "the development of offshore renewable energy in Europe offers ambiguous results".
Regarding how the implementation of what is known as 'blue energy' has been developed, the Court highlights that "although the EU strategy tries to reconcile it with biodiversity, the Commission has not assessed its possible environmental consequences, such as the displacement of species and structural changes in populations, food availability or migration patterns". In fact, in relation to this, one of the members of the Court who led the audit, Nikolaos Milionis, has explained that "this EU blue revolution should not be undertaken at any price: marine renewables must not result in serious social or environmental damage".
However, it is very important that the full implications of marine renewable energy are studied. The document itself stresses that "assessing the cumulative effects of all human activities at sea is a requirement of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive." In this regard, it will be particularly challenging to analyze the cumulative effects on the marine environment, as these derive both from the development of marine renewable energy and its interaction with other human activities at sea - past, present and future - and are not exclusively related to one sector.
Billions in subsidies for this energy
Since 2007, 2.3 billion euros have been allocated from the EU budget to marine renewable technologies, and the European Investment Bank has provided loans and equity investments worth 14.4 billion euros.
Marine renewable energy sources include a range of alternatives, from wind (fixed and floating offshore) to ocean (tidal and wave) and floating photovoltaics.
The targets of the EU Strategy on Marine Renewable Energy are ambitious to say the least: 61GW of installed capacity is expected by 2030, while by 2050 it is expected to be 340GW. However, "the recent rise in inflation may slow down the development of offshore wind energy." In fact, widespread commercialization of ocean energy is not expected until 2030, which is likely, "to contribute marginally to renewable energy targets for that year."
Why do the auditors fear that the Commission has not correctly assessed all the possible consequences arising from the deployment and development of offshore renewable energy? Is there any evidence to justify these suspicions? Indeed. The Report itself refers to a set of available studies which conclude that "the development of marine renewable energy can have both negative and positive environmental effects", which will depend on the types of technology used and the phases of the life cycle of the installation. In this regard, the location of the site is also "crucial", as it will greatly influence both the marine environment and life above the sea.
Specifically, a 2022 study that sought to analyze the potential environmental impact of marine renewable energy showed that "some stressors caused by marine energy production can have a large radius of impact" and that "the greatest cumulative effects occur in the vicinity of offshore installations".
The same study questioned EU strategies and targets for marine renewable energy, explaining that while achieving the 2030 climate targets is expected to affect less than 3% of the European maritime area, these forecasts do not take into account "the fact that the deployment of this type of energy may influence a much larger proportion of certain habitat types and their biodiversity".
Not only environmental risks
As the Tribunal itself points out, "marine renewables rarely coexist with other activities". In fact, the existing conflicts between these and some sectors, such as fishing, have not yet been resolved. Likewise, "EU countries with shared waters hardly plan joint projects, wasting the opportunity to make more efficient use of scarce maritime space".
For the same reason, the auditors suspect that the socioeconomic consequences and implications of the development of this type of energy have not been studied "in sufficient depth".
However, the very development of this energy may be affected by the risks currently experienced by the supply of raw materials dedicated to it. If these were to suffer a cut, it could "cause a slowdown in the deployment of marine renewable energy in Europe". At present, most of the materials used in the construction of marine renewable energy facilities have been supplied by China.
Thus, the Court notes that "in the EU, dependence on raw materials can create bottlenecks, and auditors are concerned about security of supply in the current context of geopolitical tensions". Similarly, administrative and bureaucratic procedures are a major problem in the eyes of the auditors who produced the report, which they describe as an "added obstacle". In this regard, they cite the example of France, where it can take up to eleven years to build offshore wind farms.