DURHAM, N.C. – Duke University has received a $7.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to assess the risks offshore wind energy development along the East Coast may pose to birds, bats and marine mammals.

The funding will support the work of a consortium of researchers from 15 institutions. What they learn will inform decisions about the locations of future wind farms and help identify steps that can be taken to reduce harmful impacts on wildlife as offshore wind deployment increases.

“Our goal is to provide a long-term adaptive roadmap – a science-based toolkit – that industry and government agencies can use,” says Doug Nowacek, Repass-Rodgers University Distinguished Professor of Conservation Technology, who will lead the new Wildlife and Offshore Wind (WOW) research project.

Federal agencies have set a goal of boosting U.S. offshore wind energy production to 30 gigawatts by 2030. That could cut energy-sector carbon dioxide emissions by 78 million metric tons annually and help support an estimated 77,000 jobs in the sustainable blue economy. 

Regulatory agencies, energy developers and conservationists alike agree that reducing harmful interactions with coastal and marine species is a priority, says Nowacek. But to do that, we first need to fill some pretty sizeable gaps in what we know about the movements and behaviors of species in these waters and identify or develop geospatial mapping tools, conservation technologies and operational practices that will help protect species at risk.

“That,” he says, “is the mission of WOW.”

The project will tap the expertise of Duke researchers and their consortium partners in statistical and ecological modeling; geospatial data analysis and modeling; marine megafauna research; avian and bat ecology; bioacoustics and behavioral ecology; biological oceanography; and technology development.

Patrick Halpin, director of the Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab at Duke will lead the data synthesis component of the project. 

“We will be continuously providing all information gained from this project to regional ocean planning organizations, energy developers, and other stakeholders involved in coastal and marine management so our work will be directly useful to them.” he says.

While WOW will focus on the potential effects of the construction and operation of wind energy development on marine wildlife, it will also set important baselines to guide the long-term sustainable management of ocean ecosystems and species that may be affected by other human activities, Halpin notes.

Brian Murray, interim director of Duke’s Energy Initiative and Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, will lead WOW’s external engagement with industry partners and other stakeholders.

“Wind developers, federal and state governments and regional non-governmental organizations will all play a vital role in the success of the project,” he says. “Our external advisory board, drawn from these constituencies, will bring valuable perspectives that will inform and be informed by the science team’s data and field work.”

The project will also provide new research and internship opportunities for undergraduate, master’s and doctoral students at Duke and its partner institutions.

 The $7.5 million award that will support WOW is part of a $13.5 million package of research grants on offshore wind energy announced this week by DOE. The grants are funded jointly by DOE and the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management,

“Harnessing the incredible potential that exists within offshore wind energy is an essential piece of reaching a net-zero carbon future,” says Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “We must ensure that it’s done with care for the surrounding ecosystem by co-existing with fisheries and marine life – and that’s exactly what this investment will do.” 

Fourteen research institutions and organizations will partner with Duke on the WOW project. They are the University of St. Andrews; Syracuse University; TetraTech; Florida State University; the Wildlife Conservation Society; the New England Aquarium; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; Cornell University; the Biodiversity Research Institute; Southall Environmental Associates; Scientific Innovations; the Pacific Northwest National Lab; the State University of New York at Stony Brook; and Rutgers University.

Potential future offshore wind energy
The locations of current and potential future offshore wind energy development along the East Coast. Credit: Bureau of Ocean Energy Management