Innovative Australian technology developers are playing their part in building a fledgling industry, but there is little regulatory and policy support.
Globally, renewable marine energy technologies are rapidly developing and moving closer to commercialisation, while finance is beginning to flow as governments and large, well-established companies begin to invest in the industry.
Some jurisdictions in Australia have started addressing the barriers to commercialisation of marine energy, though the sector is still some way from discerning a best practice. Australian states and territories and the Federal Government have been slow to engage with the issues surrounding investment in marine energy, and developers face considerable hurdles in their attempts to get devices into the water and develop their projects.
There is currently no coherent and considered regulatory framework for the deployment of marine energy devices in Australian waters. To date, developers have forged a process through ad-hoc negotiation and discussion with local authorities and government departments.Article continues below…
There is neither an established process, nor a department that acts as a first ‘port of call’ for developers – whereas other countries, such as the United Kingdom, have established specific bodies to act as a ‘one-stop shop’ for consenting.
Regulating marine energy
The disparate nature of marine energy regulation is perhaps in itself the greatest barrier to progress, as developers have had to deal with numerous bodies seeking various reports and assurances, with little co-ordination.
Obtaining consents for a project can take years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, because developers have to provide a range of detailed surveys and reports and satisfy a number of statutes, regulatory regimes and authorities. Producing the necessary evidence has proven difficult as baseline data and experience are limited, given the immature nature of the technologies.
The stringency of these requirements has not been relaxed for small-scale prototype deployments, even though the environmental impacts of marine energy technologies cannot be assessed properly unless they are deployed and monitored, nor for the fact that emerging scientific opinion holds that the impacts are likely to be minimal and manageable.
In some jurisdictions, such as Scotland and Canada, governments have undertaken strategic environmental assessments to balance development and sustainability by broadly identifying the likely interactions of marine energy technologies with the marine environment and with other human uses of the oceans. Australian developers shoulder the sole responsibility, which can be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming.
Leasing the seabed
Aside from environmental consents, there is no standardised process for leasing the seabed or licensing the exploration and exploitation of the wave and tidal resource. State governments control the seabed for up to 3 nautical miles from the shoreline, where marine energy devices will generally be located, and Victoria has moved first – producing a discussion paper on implementing a whole-of-government approach for marine energy licensing and impact assessment.
Unfortunately, this process appears to have stalled. The lack of licensing is in stark contrast to the offshore oil and gas industry, where there is a well-established system for licensing.
Not only does this make initial application for consent difficult and inconsistent, it will prove ever-more problematic as the industry develops as there will be increased competition for limited suitable sites for marine energy generation. Without a structured tendering or licensing process in place, there is a risk that speculation on wave and tidal sites will mean that the resource is not developed effectively and efficiently.
Other jurisdictions have implemented tendering processes to ensure that only well-equipped and well-intentioned developers are able to access the resource.
These lengthy consenting processes impede development, particularly in the early proof-of-concept stages, and in some cases developments have collapsed entirely due to the capital required to meet consenting requirements. Effectively, early developers that blaze a trail for those that follow also have to foot the substantial bill.
Re-imagining the regulations
As with other renewable energy sources and like other countries, the best wave and tidal energy resources are somewhat distant from the existing electricity transmission networks, which generally grew up around coal basins. The high cost of new transmission infrastructure, coupled with the necessity of transitioning to renewables, suggests the need for changes to the National Electricity Rules to facilitate network augmentation.
Unfortunately, the Australian Energy Market Commission has not implemented comprehensive proposals for Scale-Efficient Network Extensions; an initiative that would have seen the cost of network upgrades distributed across all energy consumers, rather than being placed on one developer.
Australia has not developed funding mechanisms or incentives specific to marine energy development, and does not have a site or centre for testing marine energy devices. The Clean Energy Finance Corporation’s $10 billion fund may assist with some co-investment, but there is still a need for testing facilities, like the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney, Scotland, which provides infrastructure for early device testing and works closely with licensing bodies to streamline the consenting and licensing process.
Australia has a world-class wave and tidal resource that has the potential to provide a clean, renewable and uninterrupted electricity supply. Innovative Australian technology developers are playing their part in building a fledgling industry, but there is little regulatory and policy support. If Australia is to ensure that these companies stay onshore, it is essential that we challenge the current barriers and develop regulatory and policy frameworks to facilitate the development of this industry.
Glen Wright is currently undertaking a PhD at the Australian National University, researching the regulation and policy of renewable marine energy generation. Mr Wright works for the Total Environment Centre as an Energy Advocate and has previously worked in the Energy and Resources Group at commercial law firm Freehills.