Australia’s offshore wind industry is finally showing signs of life. Poppy Johnston explores the future of this seafaring clean energy technology.   

It’s been a decade in the making but the federal government have finally written the rulebook for an offshore wind industry in Australia.  

The Offshore Electricity Infrastructure Bill 2021 made it through parliament with bipartisan support in November 2021. The long-awaited legal framework will help developers navigate the tensions involved with building largescale energy-generating infrastructure in Commonwealth waters, which is a boundary that kicks in more than 3 kilometres from the shoreline.  

With this legislation in place, developers will be able to apply for a licence to build and operate offshore wind plants. Several new projects have since been announced, bringing the total number of planned Australian projects to 24 (some with multiple stages) with a total capacity of around 34 GW according to Rystad Energy data provided for the 2022 Ecogeneration Wind Map. 

The Star of the South, an offshore wind project on Victoria’s south-east coast off Gippsland in Victoria, is the most progressed project. It recently attracted $19.5 million from the Victorian government towards its extensive planning and analysis work and is tipped to provide 2.2 GW of clean energy, which is around 20 per cent of Victoria’s energy needs. 

Australia’s offshore wind industry is still on the starting blocks but elsewhere around the world, offshore wind is already big business. The technology has earned its position in the global clean energy transition, with the International Energy Agency flagging offshore wind as one of the big three sources of clean energy alongside solar and onshore wind. 

But in Australia, the technology still has many hurdles to jump: it’s still relatively expensive compared to onshore wind and solar, especially as a brand new industry, and is not without environmental and social concerns, such as migratory bird disturbances and diminished visual amenity. And, in a country with an abundance of space, wind and sun onshore, it’s hard to see why clean energy generation needs to stray from the land at all. 

In the draft 2022 Integrated System Plan released by the Australian Energy Market Operator in December, the promising potential of offshore wind was noted but the cost of the technology was considered a barrier. “It is therefore not currently projected to play a large role in the future energy mix at current forecasts of future costs, unless land use considerations limit onshore development. Further cost reductions could see offshore wind feature more prominently in future ISPs.” 

Still, the case for an Australian offshore wind industry is brewing. In July, the Blue Economy CRC released a report outlining the potential of offshore wind in Australia. It found Australia has rich offshore wind resources, with the southern parts home to exceptional wind resources akin to the North Sea where there is already an established industry.  

The technology has its advantages, the researchers note. It would be a useful addition to a decarbonising grid as wind speeds are faster and arguably more consistent than onshore. 

And, compared to onshore wind and solar plants, ideal sites for offshore wind also tend to be closer to existing high voltage network infrastructure as the bulk of Australia’s population lives by the coast. According to the research, more than 2000 GW could potentially be installed within 100km of current substations. 

Scale is also on the technology’s side. Compared to anything onshore, which is constrained by land availability, it’s possible to deliver much bigger individual offshore wind projects.  

The Blue Economy CRC research found that the generation source would be well-suited to power green hydrogen production hubs. Strategically placed close to ports, it could be used to power a clean manufacturing revolution including the production of green hydrogen to produce low emissions steel and aluminium, or for export. 

For communities clustered around regional ports, this means high quality, ongoing jobs, including for those formally employed in offshore fossil fuel extraction industries. 

Wind resources comparable to the North Sea 

Climate councillor at the Climate Council and senior lecturer at Macquarie University Dr Madeline Taylor says offshore wind is a clear economic opportunity for Australia.  

Although offshore wind costs more than onshore wind, Taylor says that costs have fallen dramatically – about 50 per cent since 2015 – and is now one of the cheapest energy options in places such as the UK. 

Setting up a new industry is always expensive, however, and government support and incentives will be important in these early stages. 

Over the horizon 

As with the construction of any large infrastructure, communities need to be brought along for the ride. 

Taylor notes that while Australia may not be as space constrained as places such as the UK, Australia is already facing opposition to onshore wind based on noise, visual impacts and environmental concerns. In the UK and European countries, she says similar community concerns pushed the UK and European countries to move wind generation offshore. 

Nexsphere chief executive Glen Kierse, who’s company recently announced its intention to build a “over the horizon” 1 GW offshore wind farm in the Bass Strait off the north east of Tasmania, says visual amenity is an important consideration, especially as offshore wind turbines keep getting taller. 

Going further out separates the plant from rich ecological and community activity around the coastline. “We don’t want this to effect anyone wanting to take a tinnie out.” 

Like any type of energy generation, there are trade-offs. Submarine cables running along the floor no doubt impact marine life but do avoid cutting through thousands of kilometres of bush, he explains.  

“When you put a largescale structure into the marine environment there will always be impacts on the marine life, and on migratory birds as well… we will be keen to work through those.” 

He says that these kinds of concerns will inform the final placement of the plant. 

RE-Alliance national director Andrew Bray says that Star of the South can serve as an exemplar for community engagement. 

“We attribute [the Gippsland community’s positive response] to the company’s proactive community engagement, years in advance of when the project might be constructed.  

“When projects deliver long-term jobs and clear community benefit programs, amenity issues can be seen in perspective and mitigated in consultation with the community.” 

It all adds up 

Communities may prefer not to see the turbines from the coast but going over the horizon does influence the cost. Kierse says distance does add costs due to longer transmission distances and higher maintenance costs. However, ocean depth is where prices really vary.  

Offshore structures fitted to the seabed are suitable for depths of 60-70m. Deeper waters require newer technologies, such as floating turbines, that are less advanced. This makes shallow seabeds such as the Bass Strait attractive – in other areas, 30kms off the coast can be 2000m deep.  

The other factors to consider when choosing an offshore wind location include proximity to a port. When you are dealing with turbines more than 100m high, there are some considerable logistics involved with getting wind farms online. 

Jobs boom 

The job-creating potential of offshore wind – both direct and indirect by powering nearby clean energy industrial activity – is another key advantage of the technology. The Blue Economy CRC modelled a few different scenarios for job creation, with the highest scenario predicting the creation of 5000-8000 jobs each year. 

For Re-Alliance’s Andrew Bray, offshore wind can help with a just transition for traditional coal regions.  

“Of the large-scale generation technologies, it requires the largest operations workforce so will create more ongoing jobs.” 

However, energy academic Madeline Taylor says that compared to offshore oil drilling, which requires hundreds of people onsite to manage and maintain, offshore wind does create fewer ongoing jobs. That’s a compelling reason, she says, to strategically team offshore wind with clean manufacturing hubs nearby.  

The legislation in question 

Taylor says there’s a lot to like about the new offshore electricity infrastructure legislation, which is yet to be revealed in full detail, but says Australia should learn from the mistakes made in mature offshore wind markets such as the UK, Norway and Denmark. 

The legislation refers to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, the EPBC ACT, which has been the subject of several reviews noting its deficiencies, including the absence of a mechanism to review climate acts.  

Given the shortcomings of these environmental regulations, Taylor is concerned about relying on it to manage environmental risks posed by offshore wind such as underwater noise, fish spawning concerns and impacting migratory birds.  

Native title rights are another question mark, with the legislation failing to adequately outline what co-beneficial relationships with coastal communities would look like. 

Safety is another concern. Worker safety will be overseen by the same body that oversees offshore petroleum drilling, which she says is troubling given the two industries are very different and safety concerns vary considerably.  

There’s also an opportunity to use legislation to foster social licence from the beginning. In Denmark, for example, it’s a legislated requirement to offer shared ownership of offshore wind plants with host communities.