‘Good seas, good grids and good wind’: Australia’s tentative first steps towards an offshore wind industry
Australia seems made for industrial-scale wind energy, but a federal government move to finally make it legal has left some disappointed
The way Ron Ipsen looks at it, the Latrobe Valley is the beating heart of Victoria.
From here, a tangle of transmission lines snake their way 145km west to Melbourne and beyond, branching out like a vascular system across the landscape.
Though Ipsen is long since retired, the 64-year-old third-generation power station worker still lives across the lake from the Yallourn “W” power plant, which he spent the best years of his working life keeping alive.
“They’re just massive,” Ipsen says. “A 15-storey fireball inside a kettle. They’re magnificent machines. We won’t see the like of them again.”
Though he respects the technical ingenuity and misses the work, Ipsen – a veteran of the fight against the state government over the Hazelwood mine fire – says the good life coal once offered is gone, and there is a new future to be won.
“The product we have always produced is energy. Whether it’s selling coal or across a cable to Singapore,” Ipsen says. “We’re not changing what we’re selling, we’re just changing the way we transmit it and the jobs associated with that.”
Among the long list of photovoltaic solar and onshore windfarm projects planned for the region, the most compelling is the proposed offshore windfarm, which Ipsen says offers “massive” potential for a whole new industry.
Since 2019 the International Energy Agency has singled out offshore wind as one of the big three new sources of power generation, along with PV solar farms and onshore wind.
Globally, 200GW of new capacity is planned to come online by 2030. Among the world leaders are the US and China – China alone accounted for half the installed capacity in 2020.
This is just a fraction of what Australia could produce. With 60,000km of coastline and some of the best resources in the world – wind speeds in the Bass Strait reach 12 metres a second – Australia seems made for industrial-scale wind projects.
‘Economic benefits for a generation’
One analysis by the Blue Economy Cooperative Research Centre, published in July, found Australia had the potential to generate 2,000GW from offshore wind in areas less than 100km from existing substations.
Jeff Colgan, a political scientist and director of the Climate Solutions Lab at the Watson Institute for Public and International Affairs at Brown University, says Australia has much to gain.
“Offshore wind is set to be big business globally as the political fights over locating wind farms on land intensify,” Colgan says. “If Australia positions itself well on offshore wind now, it could reap economic benefits for its workforce for at least a generation.”
But while oil production hubs such as Aberdeen in Scotland have leveraged offshore wind to reinvent themselves as a renewable energy centres, Australia has so far been slow to move.
When the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) released its 2020 integrated system plan, a roadmap for planning the power grid that is updated every two years, offshore wind didn’t rate a mention.
However, in the 18 months since that report, 10 new projects have been announced with four – two in New South Wales, one in Victoria and another on the north-west coast of Tasmania – being factored in to AEMO’s forward planning.
The total capacity of these 10 projects offers more than 25GW of energy.
The earliest and most developed is the Star of the South, a proposed 2.2GW offshore wind farm off the coast of Victoria in the Bass Strait.
So far 200 wind turbines have been planned for a 496sq km area, with the energy generated transmitted onshore by cable to a substation. The $10bn project will be one of the largest offshore wind farms in the world, capable of meeting nearly 20% of Victoria’s current energy demand, with the potential to add more turbines in the future.
The company’s chief executive, Casper Frost Thorhauge – who started his working life as an engineer in a thermal coal plant – says Australia is hugely attractive for offshore wind development.
“Most [existing power plants in Australia] are closing in on the end of their technical life, which creates the opportunity for new power generation to be made,” Thorhauge says. “And then the fundamentals are there: good seas, good grids and good wind.”
With several other projects now in various stages of planning, the business case for setting up local manufacturing in the supply chain is stronger.
“Being one project, it has always been hard for us to attract the global supply chain and for them to set up here in Australia,” he says. “Having multiple projects proposed, it becomes an industry.”
‘Incomprehensibly late first step’
Tom Quinn, the head of policy for Beyond Zero Emissions, says a lucky quirk of fate and geography means offshore wind can deliver more than zero-emissions power generation.
“Our industrial regions are right next door to some of the richest wind regions in the world,” Quinn says. “To do the big capital investments required to overhaul our existing industry like steel furnaces and the like, it’s much easier if you have that supply of power.”
As demand grows over the next decade for products such as green steel, hydrogen, aluminium and a host of other minerals needed to build cars, batteries and other components, he says there is “big money” to be made – and a lot of work to be done.
The national assistant secretary of the Electrical Trades Union, Michael Wright, says coal, oil and gas workers already have the skills needed to run these operations.
“The fact that these projects are so close to the areas that are going to take it in the teeth from this transition means there is a really good opportunity for workers to transition into good jobs,” Wright says.
“You don’t get that with solar farms. They’re short-term builds. There’s an old joke: it just takes two security guards and an Alsatian to run them.”
Getting people on board, however, has proved tricky. Resistance within some union branches to jobs in renewable energy stems largely from bitter experience. In some cases promised jobs never appeared, and those that did came with poor pay and conditions.
The hope is that things will be different by partnering offshore wind with green manufacturing – though until recently no one has been able to take the initial steps as such projects have been illegal.
In early September the federal government sought to resolve this by introducing the Offshore Electricity Infrastructure Bill that would make licences available for feasibility studies and commercial development.
Those looking for a clear set of guide-rails for a potentially lucrative new industry were disappointed. Despite years of lobbying, very little in the bill is binding, with the word “may” appearing throughout the text 406 times to describe ministerial obligations or procedural requirements.
In its current form the bill offers no clear guidance about environmental regulations, requirements for negotiations with native title holders, a clear safety regime for workers, or marine spatial planning requirements.
Dr Tina Soliman Hunter, a professor of energy and resources law at Macquarie University law school, says she has concerns about this “legislate first, amend later” approach.
“The bill is extremely weak, and relies on regulations that do not exist and may never be written, and is essentially placing an each-way bet on a two-horse race [between fossil fuels and offshore wind],” Hunter says.
As the bill will need to be updated after it passes, Hunter says the rules will have to be written on the fly, creating uncertainty for investors as things change, or leaving the government open to influence.
But those who have been working to get the green light for the industry – environmental groups, NGOs, unions, industry figures and think tanks – say they support the bill as a critical first step.
“It is an incomprehensibly late first step for what is a really important industry,” Wright says. “There is no expectation this is the final version of the legislation, but if the industry doesn’t get this, there’s no point to continue to invest.
“Why would you bother to start if it’s not legal?”