We all know about the benefits of building wind turbines offshore – they produce clean, emission-free energy while avoiding crowding the mainland. As is the case with anything built out miles into the ocean, there are lingering concerns from environmentalists over the potentially disruptive effect these operations might have on marine ecosystems. Nearly 30 miles off of America’s eastern seaboard, a pair of Dominion Energy turbines have made a surprisingly positive impact on those delicate underwater environments.
The idea that artificial turbines can benefit the millions and millions of aquatic creatures that live near them runs contrary to what many would initially assume, but that is what has been happening near the Virginia coast. In October 2020, Dominion Energy built two wind turbines on their expansive coastal lease area, equivalent to roughly 85,000 football fields. These turbines are part of a pilot program and Dominion Energy plans to build as many as 180 additional units by 2026 as part of a full-fledged offshore wind farm off the coast of Virginia. Once completed, the farm is expected to generate enough clean energy to power 660,000 homes each year and will create an estimated 1,100 jobs for area residents. The pilot program is demonstrating that the farm will benefit the environment in ways beyond clean energy generation.
It all started a few months into the pilot project when Dominion Energy employees observed a notable change in the degree of marine life congregating around the rig’s steel foundation. Underwater cameras placed during construction showed a growing quantity of mussels and algae developing on the foundation, with a wide array of marine life including Atlantic mahi mahi, baitfish, seabass, and other types of fish circling around it. There have even been visits from some of the more exotic creatures of the region, including sea turtles and giant ocean sunfish. “It’s just amazing the fish ecosystem that is growing around those turbines,” said Scott Lawton, who works for Dominion Energy as an environmental technical adviser.
Although the cultivation effect of the turbines after a year is already impressive, there is evidence around the world that indicates that this is just the start of a soon-to-be thriving ocean community. Scandinavian researchers have been looking into a similar effect on their offshore turbine farms for years. This research revealed, large fish, dolphins, and seals have begun flocking to and feeding off the fish and plankton lower on the food chain near the turbines. Off the coast of California, there are 27 different oil rigs in various states of decommission, all home to bustling underwater neighborhoods of rockfish and bocaccio.
While the foundations of these rigs and turbines are key for attracting the mussels and plankton that kick off the congregating of larger fish and the resulting ecosystem, the actual construction process can destroy these habitats due to the noise and vibrations generated. To find a way to build without disturbing the delicate balance of nature as it has grown, Dominion Energy will be employing a “double bubble curtain”, which should provide a muffling effect as the foundation is driven into the seabed. Once finished, the energy benefits coupled with the immense conservation effect should help incentivize the construction of more offshore wind projects worldwide.