As Australia fully embraces offshore wind as a crucial part of the nation’s energy future, Spatial Media is helping companies and communities visualise how proposed projects will look when complete, writes Jeremy Chunn.
Wind energy has taken off during the past 15 years in Australia, from supplying zero energy to the National Electricity Market (NEM) in 2007 to 11 per cent in 2021. But that’s only what’s been happening on land, where projects have balanced technical operational success with a long campaign to earn support from farmers and regional communities.
Turbines stick out like skyscrapers in the countryside, and they are not entirely silent.
Offshore wind plants have popped up off the coasts of the UK, Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and China, where land is subject to tighter constraints. The first proposed offshore plant for Australia is Star of the South, where 200 turbines in a roughly rectangular formation will be secured to the seabed through monopiles off the coast of Victoria’s Gippsland region, with the nearest being about 7km from the shore.
The project’s developers are seeking approval for 2.2GW of capacity which, with the blustery conditions over the waters, they say could supply up to 20 per cent of load in Victoria.
If wind developers have learned one thing about squeezing out polluting energy generation for the sake of future generations, it’s that you have to get the approval of their great-grandparents. That means showing communities exactly what a finished proposal will look like.
“Gone are the days when you’d print out a five-metre roll plot of the design of a project to try to explain it to the community,” says Jai Eakin, managing director of digital visualisation company Spatial Media.
“It’s about creating easy-to-use tools that have better outcomes for the projects, and to really give people a say.”
To do this, Spatial Media has created software that allows users to pick a spot on the coast and look at the faraway turbines in different weather conditions. Rather than dishing up the usual “long, boring flythroughs on YouTube that get a few hundred hits”, Eakin saw room for interactive tools where users can tailor their own experience and leave feedback.
“Even though it could be a multibillion-dollar project, you [a resident of an affected area] are interested in how it is going to impact you,” he tells EcoGeneration.
“With a lot of our tools you can type in your address and see, from your doorstep, the part of the project that actually matters to you.”
A community analytics platform provides the developer with “targeted engagement” – including comments and survey data – to gauge the sentiment among residents. The turbines for Star of the South may end up being 350 metres from tip to sea level, and by EcoGeneration’s calculations they would have to be at least 66km offshore to be completely out of sight.
It’s worth noting the interactive tool has its limits. There is no audio so users have no idea whether they will be able to hear the turbines whirling away. Also, “flickering” glare from blades as they reflect direct sunlight is not the same as in real life (“We try to get it as accurate as possible,” says Eakin). But it is possible to imagine the offshore plant at different times of the day and under different weather conditions.
“It’s pretty full-on weather off Gippsland so there are a lot of visual aspects that affect what you’re seeing – or not seeing [when it’s misty],” says Eakin.
The Brisbane-based company – which also has operations in Canada – launched eight years ago and has worked on infrastructure projects including Brisbane Airport, the Sydney Gateway roads project and the proposed airport in western Sydney.
“Our niche has always been big infrastructure,” says Eakin. “The renewables sector is new for us.”
About half of Spatial Media’s 40 staff have a background in gaming or 3D rendering, and the remainder are UX (user experience) or UI (user interface) designers, he says.
The offshore wind sector is looming large on the horizon, with 23 projects in various stages of planning around Australia. Nine of those are off the coast of Victoria, totalling almost 14GW. Onshore wind can make up more than 50 per cent of generation in Victoria when conditions are right.
Analysts from BloombergNEF say 10GW of offshore wind installations were delivered globally in 2022. This follows a record year in 2021, when developers raced to finish projects off the coast of China to secure government subsidies. It was the year China took top spot from the UK for the capacity of its offshore wind portfolio.
BloombergNEF expects projects that rely on floating technology will become more common as research and investment leads to refinements in turbine design. The largest floating installation so far is a 50MW plant off the coast of Scotland.
Floating or fixed, offshore wind will – if all goes well – supply a meaningful wedge of the NEM in the years ahead.
“There were only one or two in feasibility stage and now there are more than a dozen [in Australia],” says Eakin. “It’s fantastic.”