Developing Australia’s Blue Economy: How Offshore Wind Farms Could End the Fossil Fuel Era

Offshore wind farms are poised to become Australia’s newest source of renewable energy. In long-awaited news for the offshore wind industry, the Federal Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor finally tabled an offshore wind bill in Parliament. The bill will establish a regulatory framework for the industry, paving the way for numerous proposed projects.

A recent report by the Blue Economy Cooperative Research Centre suggests the industry could create up to 8,000 jobs each year from 2030 – but this could happen earlier than expected with over a dozen applications already lodged. The transition from offshore oil and gas towards offshore wind will drastically reduce our carbon footprint while also helping us progress into an era where fossil fuels are obsolete – but it might come at a high cost to local marine ecosystems.

What is offshore wind?

Offshore wind power is energy generated by the force of the winds at sea using large turbines anchored to the seabed. These are most often placed in offshore areas that have strong, regular winds and shallow waters close to shore. This energy is then supplied into the electricity grid to power homes and businesses. Like onshore wind and solar, offshore wind is a form of renewable energy meaning it is clean, cheap, and reliable. 

Offshore wind farms are being developed worldwide in Europe, Korea, Japan, the US and the UK. These nations have already deployed offshore wind farms on a massive scale, with many achieving tremendous economic benefits from their operation.

Do we really need offshore wind? What’s in it for Australia?

Given that Australia already boasts an abundance of onshore wind and solar system resources, some may question why we need to make the foray into offshore wind? Despite our resources, Australia has been notoriously slow to move away from fossil fuels. With climate change posing an unprecedented threat that needs urgent attention, more needs to be done and sooner. If all the current proposed offshore wind farms were built, their combined energy capacity would be greater than all of Australia’s coal-fired power stations. 

Australia won’t only benefit environmentally but also economically – potentially in a very big way. In fact, Australia could be a global offshore wind superpower. There is enough wind potential, just off Australia’s shores, to power our electricity grid several times over. 

Sven Teske, Associate Professor at Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology, states:

“Australia has world class offshore wind resources, equivalent to or better than seen internationally where offshore wind has proven itself commercially. Our modelling found many excellent sites where the resource can complement existing renewable generation”

He continued by claiming that there is “potential not just to generate electricity for us here in Australia, but also to produce hydrogen and export that energy into other countries” .

Offshore wind presents a significant economic opportunity for Australia, creating up to 8,000 jobs annually from 2030. As it requires similar employment skills as offshore oil and gas, many of the jobs and economic opportunities would be created in regional areas like the Hunter Valley, Illawarra, Gladstone, Port Kembla, Newcastle, and Latrobe Valley that already have the energy infrastructure and skilled workforce. 

In addition, the Climate Council estimates that offshore wind could also provide cheap energy for existing manufacturing, boosting the industry by up to 25%. Additionally, they predict that it would also attract private investment in new export industries such as renewable hydrogen and local wind turbine manufacturing. 

Impact on marine wildlife and fisheries

While we can hardly doubt the positive economic benefits of wind farms and their potential to reduce carbon emissions, they don’t come without their detractors. To be precise, the comparatively large size of offshore windfarms to their onshore counterparts, coupled with the fact that their effect spans terrestrial and marine ecosystems mean that they may inflict harm to marine life. While the impact is not fully understood, marine ecosystems are delicately balanced chains that are sensitive to even minor disruptions.

The Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (FbN) in Germany, which is aggressively promoting wind farms as an energy source in order to reach its renewable energy goals, has conceded that offshore wind farms can “sometimes substantially” harm marine wildlife. That harm takes the form of disappearance of resting and feeding habitats to irritation from sound waves due to construction of turbine foundations under the sea, the foundation states. 

To mitigate this risk, there have been calls to achieve a balance between climate change targets and environmental legislation. This includes impact assessments, spatial planning and the identification of other mitigation measures to minimise environmental and human user conflicts.

Local fisheries may also be impacted. Because offshore wind farms often overlap with essential fisheries habitats, there is a need to understand, mitigate, and manage offshore wind farm impacts on fisheries. Wind farms may impact fisheries in their vicinity by creating noise disturbances, changing water flows and creating temperature fluctuations which can affect fish behaviour.

Too good an opportunity to pass up

Ultimately, the transition from offshore oil and gas towards offshore wind should be a priority for Australia as it offers crucial environmental benefits, as well as a vital economic opportunity. It really is too promising an opportunity to pass up.

That being said, it needs to be done right. It is important that we consider mitigation measures in order to ensure a balance between climate change targets and environmental legislation so that both are prioritised.

Australian offshore wind projects on the horizon

There are currently 12 offshore wind projects that have been waiting for the offshore wind bill, before they can proceed. 

Of these, the most advanced is the Star of the South, a proposed project off the coast of Gippsland in Victoria. If developed to its full potential, Star of the South will generate up to 2.2 GW of new capacity, powering up to 20% of Victoria’s electricity needs. 

Other notable proposed Australian offshore wind farm projects in the pipeline include the 2000MW Illawarra Offshore Windfarm, the 2,000MW Bass Offshore Wind Project, and the 600MW SA Offshore Windfarm. There are also multiple companies looking to invest in offshore wind projects in WA, that you can read more about here.

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