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Loony threat to world's largest offshore wind farm

Loony threat to world's largest offshore wind farm

Posting in Energy

The red-throated loon likes to eat fish, frogs and insects. It might swallow up the world's largest wind farm, if a British environmental group prevails.

The red-throated loon eats fish. It might also swallow up a massive British wind energy project.

Once again, we’re reminded that there’s no such thing as purely green energy: The world’s largest offshore wind farm has come under threat from environmentalists.

The London Array project in the Thames Estuary would generate a gigawatt of power if fully completed. But the discovery of thousands of red-throated loons on the site could force cancellation of the project’s second phase and knock out 370 megawatts of capacity, British website businessGreen reported.

The first phase of construction began in March, and is expected to deliver about 630 megawatts when it comes online next year. The projects backers, Danish energy company Dong Energy, German utility E.On, and Abu Dhabi renewable energy firm Masdar, are targeting a 2015 completion date for the entire project, when the Array would deliver electricity to 750,000 homes- about a quarter of the London area. The backers have estimated that the wind turbines will eliminate 1.4 million tons of CO2 emissions compared to fossil fuel power.

But with the discovery of about 5,000 red-throated loons, London Array must now secure permission from a group called Natural England to proceed with the second phase. The red-throated loon is a 2-foot aquatic bird that resembles a short-necked duck with an upturned bill. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has spotted a recent population decline, and placed the species on its “Amber” list, giving it a moderate conservation watch but not considering it “globally threatened.”

Project director Richard Rigg told businessGreen, “I don't think anyone expected the number of red-throated divers that we found.”

"We have a grid connection date of October 2015 with National Grid, and on that basis we will need to make a decision next year," he said. "The risk to that project is the red-throated diver. The question, quite simply, is what can we build, if anything." (Loons are called divers in the UK).

Swedish utility Vattenfall operates the world's largest offshore wind farm - 300 MW - off Britain's Kent coast.

Whether phase 2 goes ahead, London Array’s capacity would trump the size of the world’s largest operating wind farm – the Thanet Offshore Windfarm off Britain’s southeast coast, which has a capacity of 300 megawatts. It opened a year ago, with 100 380-foot high turbines housing 144-foot blades.

Can you imagine this sort of ojbection happening in China, where regulators have been known to turn a blind eye to environmental hazards, even in the solar and wind business? Beijing probably thinks the whole controversy is loony.

Photos: Top, Wikimedia/David Karnåa. Bottom, Jamie Cook

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure