A Dutch company is leading a project that, if the whole crazy scheme pans out, would turn offshore wind farms into actual farms.
The company is Ecofys, which does extensive work consulting with developers on things like offshore wind project siting and turbine testing. It thinks seaweed might be cultivated around offshore wind turbines and harvested “for the production of fish and animal feed, biofuels and energy.”
To begin testing the notion, this month Ecofys, in a project backed by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation, sent out a 20-meter-square “cultivation module” to a site six miles off the island of Texel. Steel cables anchored and buoyed in place hold nets measuring 10 meters by 10 meters a few feet under the sea. Seaweed plants “of species that occur naturally in the North Sea” are attached to the nets.
“The trial will test if the module is ‘North Sea proof,’ the survival and growth rate of the plants, and the ecological effects,” Ecofys said. “When the trial succeeds, Ecofys will have reached a global milestone: offshore cultivation of biomass (bio-offshore).”
The site where the test is taking place is not amid offshore wind turbines—instead, it’s a “disused sand extraction area,” Ecofys said. But the company believes that areas around turbines could be ideal for growing seaweed.
“A wind farm is closed for shipping and commercial fishing,” Anouk Florentinus, project manager at Ecofys, said in a statement. “This makes it a kind of marine conservation area. Fish will be attracted to the seaweed fields and use them for shelter and even as a nursery.”
Florentinus said the company expects to have “the first kilos” of harvested seaweed in hand early this summer.
What’s the plan for making use of the seaweed?
Ecofys said the Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands is looking into refining seaweed into proteins that could be components for biofuels and fuel for energy generation. It noted that the Irish company Ocean Fuel “is already extracting seaweed proteins for fish and livestock feed,” with an eye toward using seaweed production at sea to replace land-based soybean production. “These are offshore renewables in the broadest sense,” Florentinus said.
Ecofys said it is overseeing the project in a consortium with Eneco, ECN, BLIX, Van Beelen Netting, Pipelife, Ocean Harvest, VIRO and De Vries & Van de Wiel. Additionally, the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ) “facilitated the construction of the module in its harbor, supported by local contractors.”
While land-based wind farms are the subject of considerable controversy for the possible environmental impact, there’s been less scrutiny and criticism of offshore wind. A peer-reviewed study out of the Netherlands last year—funded, it should be noted, by wind power developers—found that offshore wind-power plants might actually bring benefits to marine species, including providing new habitat for various sea creatures.