With the launching of its new Climate Plan in 2008, the European Union committed itself to produce 20% of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020. Targets vary between member states and for Belgium the goal was set at 13%, to achieve by 2020. Offshore wind energy production is expected to be a major contributor in reaching this goal. The Royal Decree of 17 May 2004 delineated a zone for the production of electricity from water, current and wind in the Belgian part of the North Sea (BPNS). Since 2004, four companies, C-Power (Thorntonbank: 54 turbines, 325 MW), Belwind (Bligh Bank: 110 turbines, 330 MW), Northwind (formerly Eldepasco, Lodewijkbank: 72 turbines, 216 MW) and Norther (south of the Thorntonbank: 47-86 turbines, 258-470 MW), were granted a domain concession and an environmental permit to build and exploit an offshore wind farm. By July 2012 three other companies, Rentel, Seastar and Mermaid, obtained a concession, but still have to obtain an environmental permit. Both C-Power and Belwind already started the installation of an offshore wind farm. C-Power has built six gravity based foundation (GBF) wind turbines on the Thorntonbank in 2008, which were the first wind turbines in Belgian waters. Another 49 jacket foundations were installed in 2011 and the first half of 2012, which are now being equipped with the turbines. At the Belwind concession area, construction activities started in autumn 2009: in a first phase, 56 monopiles were driven into the seabed after which the foundations were equipped with turbines. The 55 wind turbines and one offshore high voltage station are operational since early 2011. Construction activities at Northwind will commence in early 2013. Belwind’s second phase is foreseen to start in 2014.
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 extreme 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 objective is basically tackled through the baseline monitoring, focusing on the a posteriori, resultant impact quantification, while the latter monitoring objective is covered by the targeted or process monitoring, focusing on the cause-effect relationships of a priori selected impacts1. As such, the baseline monitoring deals with observing rather than understanding impacts and hence leads to area-specific results, which might form a basis for halting activities. Targeted monitoring on the other hand deals with the understanding of the processes behind the impacts and hence leads to more generic results, which might form a sound basis for impact mitigation. For more details on baseline and targeted monitoring we refer to Degraer & Brabant (2009).
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. The Management Unit of the North Sea Mathematical Models (MUMM) 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 socioeconomic aspects. In 2011, MUMM further collaborated with different institutes to complete the necessary expertise in the following domains: noise (INTEC, Ghent University), 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 Section, Ghent University). For details on the specific research strategies followed and methodologies used, one is referred to the individual chapters.