Offshore renewable energy development in the Belgian part of the North Sea has matured since our previous report in 2013. At present, nine Belgian projects representing a capacity of 2.2 GW were granted both a domain concession and an environmental permit. Three projects are operational, one is under construction, and the last five will need to be constructed in the near future, if Belgium is to meet its 2020 targets for renewable energy. These latter include the Mermaid project, which will generate a certain amount of energy from waves as well as wind. By 2018-2019, the number of wind farms constructed will have doubled with the realization of the Nobelwind, Rentel and Norther projects. The latter will entail the installation of the largest individual turbines (8.4 MW – reaching 187 m above mean sea level) in our waters. The near future may also see the first co-use of wind farm zones with aquaculture projects being developed in the areas of the C-Power and Belwind wind farms. In the meanwhile the electricity grid is undergoing necessary reinforcements, both onshore with the Stevin project and offshore with the proposed shared connection or ‘plugat-sea’. In the adjacent Dutch wind farm zone, the Borssele project entails the installation of 1.4 GW of wind energy and the resultant transboundary wind energy zone requires both consistent management measures and a comprehensive environmental monitoring program that adequately assesses cumulative environmental impacts.
To allow for a proper evaluation and auditing of the environmental impacts of offshore wind farms, the environmental permit includes a monitoring program to ensure (1) the ability to mitigate or even halt the activities in case of severe damage to the marine ecosystem and (2) an understanding of the environmental impact of offshore wind farms to support policy, management and design of future offshore wind farms. The former is tackled mainly by the basic monitoring program, the latter by the so called targeted monitoring program. In 2014 the existing basic environmental monitoring program was evaluated and a decision was made to focus on integrating work on several ecosystem components and streamlining research efforts (see below, reloading basic environmental impact monitoring).
The monitoring program targets physical (i.e. hydro-geomorphology and underwater noise), biological (i.e. hard substrate epifouling and fish communities, soft substrate macrobenthos, epibenthos and fish, seabirds and marine mammals), as well as socio-economical (i.e. seascape perception and offshore renewables appreciation) aspects of the marine environment although not all components are yearly studied or extensively reported on. The Operational Directorate Natural Environment (OD Nature) of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences coordinates the monitoring and specifically covers hydro-geomorphology, underwater noise, hard substrate epifauna, radar detection of seabirds, marine mammals and socio-economic aspects. In 2014 and 2015, OD Nature further collaborated with different institutes to complete the necessary expertise in the following domains: seabirds (Research Institute for Nature and Forest, INBO), soft substrate epibenthos and fish (Institute for Agricultural and Fisheries Research, ILVO-Fisheries), and soft substrate macrobenthos (Marine Biology Research Group, Ghent University). For details on the specific research strategies followed and methodologies used, one is referred to the individual chapters.