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Offshore wind farm (illustrative photo)

Estonia’s planned offshore wind farms start making waves

Estonia’s planned offshore wind farms start making waves

The prospect of lucrative energy exports causes a lot of hand-rubbing at the top, but locals fear for their health and environment and mayors complain about lack of public consultation

The ongoing energy crisis is forcing the EU governments to turn to alternative, cheaper, and more sustainable energy sources that could also limit their dependence on Russian natural gas shipments. Estonia is no exception, yet it is facing a unique challenge – phasing out a vital but highly polluting source which has ensured its energy independence over the years.

Oil shale to be scrapped in 2035

For years the Baltic country has relied heavily on domestically mined oil shale, the sedimentary rock material which can be used for heating, electricity generation and production of liquid fuels such as petroleum and gas. However, its share in the country’s energy mix has been brought down from 90 percent to just over 70 percent in the last ten years. And, driven by its commitments under the Paris Agreement and the European Green Deal, the new Estonian coalition government last year pledged to stop producing shale oil in 2035 on the road to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

According to an IEA report, the attempted major energy transition will require Estonia to carefully balance between social, environmental, economic and energy security considerations. Shying away from shale oil, the country is now tapping into its renewable energy potential which, given the scarcity of sun and a first nuclear power plant still on the drawing board, lies mainly in biomass, biogas, and especially wind. Developers claim that among European countries Estonia is second only to the UK in terms of wind resources.

Betting on wind

Complementing the existing land-based wind farms, Estonia is set on developing its first marine wind parks – a move made possible by the country’s first-ever maritime spatial plan, which is now under government review. According to public broadcaster ETV, three offshore areas have been selected for development – one in the Gulf of Riga, next to the ongoing Latvian-Estonian wind farm project, and the other two - off the largest island of Saaremaa.

In total, projected wind farms will occupy an area of 1,700 km2, and have production capacity of 7 GW. Investor interest is high, and following the approval of applications, the first wind farms should become operable by 2030. By this date Estonia has agreed to cut 70 percent of its carbon emissions.

Timo Tatar, deputy chancellor of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications told ERR newswire that 2-3 GW would be enough to cover Estonia's current electricity consumption, making wind energy “a very powerful export article for Estonia."

Local concerns

But those living on Saaremaa's Sõrve Penninsula are less enthusiastic, unsure of what effect the wind farms will have on their living space. Resident Kaupo Vipp recalled to ETV how his house shook when two empty cargo ships passed by, making him wonder about the intensity of vibrations produced by hundreds of whirling windmills.

Physician Antti Kukkela laments that health is not a primary concern for maritime spatial planners, citing visual disturbance effects from the rotating windmills and research data showing that low-frequency sound has been measured at a distance of 90 kilometres from functioning wind farms.

Local authorities share the displeasure. Mihkel Undrest, a member of the Saaremaa Parish Council, says local residents have not been approached by state institutions so far. The mayor of Saaremaa, Madis Kallas, admits to ERR that the municipality has no legal levers to influence the choice of a wind park’s location but hopes that a compromise will be found.

Maritime plan not without conditions

Addressing such worries, the national maritime spatial plan sets more than 20 conditions for wind power developments. These include the locations of wind farms (at least 11 km from the coast in order to offset visual effects), wind turbines density, avoiding overlap with traditional fishing and shipping routes and national defence zones, and respect for the natural assets. Additional studies will determine the environmental effect of developments, including an overview of breeding grounds of fishes, as well as the migratory movement of birds and bats (intense in the Gulf of Riga headings and the Sõrve Peninsula in Saaremaa).  

To compensate local communities for the disturbance, the government is mulling a mechanism to involve them in the construction and maintenance of wind turbines.

Court battle

What the government wants to avoid is a repetition of the Hiiumaa offshore wind farm development court case. In 2018, following a series of legal challenges, the Estonian Supreme Court revoked a plan to build up to 160 wind turbines with a capacity up to 1,1 GW, 12 km away from the coastline of Hiiumaa, the country’s second largest island. The court stated that the project lacked assessment of the impact of wind turbines and underwater cables on the environment and relevant studies had not been carried out.

Here is what a user wrote in the forum of one of the local newspapers regarding a similar project:   

“The surroundings of Saaremaa-Hiiumaa are naturally very beautiful and unique. Why do you need to pack it full of metal?? Very ugly sight - almost 400 windmills!! The economic effect is also not sufficient to justify such pollution.”

The government says it has not given up on the Hiiumaa project, now that the national maritime plan is finally on the table. Even so, it needs to heed the IEA report’s advice – the high-wire balancing act in the energy sector requires not just tightrope walking prowess, but also compromising skills.

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