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Q&A: Sulev Nõmmann on trade-offs between wind power and marine protection in Estonia

‘Eco-friendly’ wind farms could bridge the gap – and SEI research suggests citizens are open to the concept.

Helen Saarniit / Published on 21 March 2016

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As part of a major project on improving environmental conditions in the Baltic Sea through regional coordination and capacity-building, SEI Tallinn researchers examined possible trade-offs between marine protection – widely seen as a priority – and offshore wind power development in Estonia. A new article in the journal Energy Economics presents the results of the study, which was based on a survey of citizens. Below, SEI Senior Researcher and marine expert Sulev Nõmmann discusses the findings.

Q: What motivated this particular study?
SN: The analysis was part of the INTERREG Central Baltic GES-REG (Good Environmental Status through Regional Coordination and Capacity Building) project, which aims to increase cooperation and harmonization between Estonia, Latvia, Finland and Sweden in complying with the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive. The overall aim of MSFD is to achieve and maintain good environmental status of the marine environment.

This case study analysed the possibilities to resolve conflicts in the use of marine space in such a way that future infrastructure developments in the marine waters will help achieve good environmental status.

We concentrated on the second-biggest Estonian island, Hiiumaa, since there are two competitive plans for how to use shallow areas off the coast of the island: to create a marine protected area, or an off-shore wind farm. We also explored a third option, to design an eco-wind farm with additional benefits for the local community and the economy as well as measures for marine protection.

Q: How important is offshore wind in Estonia? Is it competing with marine protection?
SN: There are certain interest groups who wish to show a conflict between the two. Interestingly enough, it is the coastal communities who create the most conflict, by saying yes to wind energy – but not in their backyard. In Estonia there is the general belief that wind power comes with noise, spoils the view of the sea, and restricts fishing. Our study examined whether it is possible to combine different uses of marine space in a way that works for both the locals and the economy.

Q: What do you mean by an ‘eco-wind farm’?
SN: Above all, eco-wind farms take into account the singularity of the specific marine habitat and are established in such a way as to inflict minimal damage. Second, these wind farms can significantly improve marine monitoring, since autonomous monitoring devices could be attached to the wind park. This is a very cost-efficient alternative to the expensive option of carrying out the monitoring by ferries. A third eco-friendly option for wind farms is that they can be designed to increase readiness for unexpected events such as oils spills. Wind farms can be positioned to allow oil spill containment walls to be installed between the individual windmills. That can keep oil from reaching the coast, which is the most disastrous outcome of oil spills.

Q: What was your survey method?
SN: We developed a survey questionnaire, and the process was carried out by a survey company. It was a web-based survey that covered coastal regions as well as spanning the whole country. We basically used discrete choice methodology – asked questions about people’s willingness to pay for different environmental alternative developments and made our conclusions based on that.

Q: What conclusions did you reach?
SN: In general, we saw that residents prefer establishing a marine protection area to a wind park development. Then again, although people were sceptical towards wind farms, they were quite positive about environmentally friendly wind farms.

We also saw that all in all people have quite a limited idea of what a wind park is and what it can offer, so public awareness-raising is needed for people to understand the benefits and possibilities of wind farms.

Q: How might the project influence policy?
SN: Political decisions are quite often taken in political backrooms, benefitting certain interest groups. The general public is left out of these discussions. A survey like ours helps to break down these walls and involve people in public discussion on topics that are of general interest. Through this we are creating a fertile ground for more balanced, debated and analysed decisions.

Q: What has happened since the study ended two years ago, and what are the next steps?
SN: We still have a long way to go. I have to back up to give a little bit of context. During the Soviet occupation in Estonia, people were cut off from the sea. Coastal areas were out of bounds and militarized, since they were escape routes to the west. Marine competence has suffered due to this, and we are still in the process of rebuilding it for the local communities. The aim is to delegate the decision-making on coastal marine developments back to local governments and societies.

The next developments in this field will likely be a marine spatial master plan for different uses: shipping routes, recreation, military, fish rearing, wind parks, water sports, etc,, in order to avoid conflicts between interest groups. There is still a lot of space for synergy and planning in innovative ways – for example, creating a wind park and combining it with opportunities for marine aquaculture.

Q: Are there specific development projects in sight that could benefit from the research?
SN: Indeed, there are. For example, the company Nelja energia is a potential developer of the biggest yet offshore wind farm, near Hiiumaa island in Western Estonia, and is currently working on it. We’ll have to wait and see how this project develops. We believe our case study and similar future studies provide valuable input in designing, budgeting and developing such major marine infrastructure developments.

Read the journal article »

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