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Floating wind farms next big push for grid

Energy expert Llewelyn Hughes sees offshore wind as a long-term Australian decarbonisation option.

More specifically, he speaks of strategically positioned floating farms, each capable of replacing an ageing coal-fired power plant and plugged into the electricity grid.

The Crawford School of Public Policy academic says this technology is taking off in the Asia Pacific.

“The timing’s not bad, we’re not too late,” he tells AAP.

South Korea, Japan and Taiwan already have offshore wind in their emissions-busting energy arsenal and their European development partners are poised to take advantage of Australia’s gale-force Roaring Forties.

“They are now looking around the region for other development opportunities,” Dr Hughes says.

Modelling in Australia by developers and independent experts shows offshore wind can operate at high capacity when onshore wind and solar are both at a low ebb – at night.

Further, the most advanced project, Star of the South near Gippsland, would have coped with Victoria’s peak demand during heatwaves and the deadly failure of coal-fired plants.

Star of the South is backed by Australian founders and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners (CIP) who are a global leader in offshore wind.

Australia has “second mover advantage” with technology costs falling while new federal laws provide investment and regulatory certainty, Dr Hughes says.

He says gaining a “social licence” is also vital.

Concerns about a proliferation of onshore renewables and 10,000km of new transmission are a risk for governments wanting to overhaul the grid to meet climate and energy needs, particularly when building across agricultural land and near towns.

Replacing the average annual output of the Yallourn coal-fired plant in Victoria, which supplies more than one fifth of the state’s electricity, would require 10 additional 300 megawatt wind farms, for example.

The Star of the South suggests in its 2022 submission to Australia’s energy market operator that the case for offshore wind in Gippsland “resonates with local communities and workers”.

They understand that the continued use of existing transmission lines from the Latrobe Valley to Melbourne after the coal generators retire makes practical and economic sense.

“There is strong support to build on the strengths of regional communities and continue their tradition of generating power,” the submission says.

After years of delay, outgoing energy minister Angus Taylor’s offshore electricity laws finally passed both houses in November 2021 to provide certainty for investors and regions looking to harness new technologies.

With in-depth industry consultation on the supporting swathe of regulations well underway, the incoming Labor government is not expected to stand in the way.

The Offshore Electricity Infrastructure (OEI) framework for licences, fees and levies is expected to speed up the Star of the South and other plans.

Dr Hughes says offshore wind has the added advantage of needing “one big permit” rather than multiple financial, planning, community and environmental consents for dozens of smaller onshore projects.

Australian-owned Oceanex intends building four offshore projects off the coast of NSW with total capacity of 7.5 gigawatts, ready to take advantage of transmission capacity that will open up when coal plants shut down.

Founded by Andy Evans and Peter Sgardelis, two early advocates of Star of the South, Oceanex is also planning 2GW of offshore wind in Western Australia.

For scale, 2GW is roughly equivalent to AGL’s ageing Loy Yang coal-fired power plant that supplies almost one third of Victoria’s power as a vital part of the existing electricity grid – when operational.

Australian-owned Nexsphere is scouting sites for the Bass Offshore Wind Energy project, off Tasmania’s northeast, with the aim of coming on line from 2026 subject to approvals.

Between 35 and 70 offshore wind turbines would power up to 325,000 homes with zero emissions renewable energy.

Nexsphere says the project would help power a proposed Bell Bay hydrogen hub and fits with government plans for the pumped hydro “Battery of the Nation” and Marinus Link transmission project.

The link is a long-proposed 1500 megawatt capacity undersea and underground electricity connection, or giant extension cord, to pump renewables into Australia’s grid.

Winds in the Bass Strait, which separates Tasmania from the mainland, are among the best in the world and could help Victoria halve emissions by 2030 and hit net-zero by 2050, according to the Victorian government.

It has already pledged $40 million to fund feasibility studies and pre-construction development for major offshore proposals from Star of the South, Macquarie Group and Flotation Energy.

Together, the three projects would power around 3.6 million homes and bring an estimated $18 billion in investment.

“We’re leading the country on offshore wind and our targets will create thousands of jobs, new industries and help slash our carbon emissions,” Energy Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said, releasing a consultation paper this month.

The Victorian government wants to bring 2 gigawatts of offshore wind online by 2032 (with first power achieved by 2028), growing to 4 GW by 2035 and 9 GW by 2040.

The new federal government has pledged to make Australia a renewable energy superpower.

Christian Downie from the Australian National University School of Regulation and Global Governance says the energy transition will present both opportunities and risks for Australia at a time of geopolitical tensions.

“Of course we have some of the biggest renewable resources in the world and if we act now we could well gain an advantage,” he told ambassadors and policymakers recently.

“You have to say, after (the federal election) there’s probably a better chance the government may start to act more quickly.”

Declining demand for fossil fuels in the region could also affect strategic relationships.

“Our exports of coal and gas have been a cornerstone of our relationship with countries such as Japan and Korea,” Professor Downie says.

The International Energy Agency expects China to surpass Europe at the end of 2022 to become the market with the largest total offshore wind capacity in the world.

China built 16.9GW of new offshore wind in 2021 taking national capacity to 26.4GW, according to state media, which is equivalent to rolling out 30 large offshore turbines a week.

Governments within Europe are already getting serious about offshore wind.

Belgium, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands recently signed a co-operation agreement to build the “Green Power Plant of Europe”.

Harnessing North Sea offshore wind and green hydrogen, the project has a target of at least 65GW by 2030 and 150GW by 2050.

What’s attractive about offshore wind is the sheer scale and timeframe over which it has to be achieved, leading renewable energy investor David Scaysbrook says.

The co-founder of Quinbrook Infrastructure Partners says offshore wind has typically been the preserve of very large international utilities because it is a specialist activity.

“Offshore wind and harnessing offshore wind must be one of the top technological priorities because, at scale, it can be amongst the cheapest source of renewable power,” he says.

Meanwhile, offshore wind may address NIMBY (not in my backyard) issues but the projects could interfere with the migratory patterns of whales.

A conservation group for the endangered southern right whale is worried about a proposed farm in Lacepede Bay, 230km south of Adelaide.

SA Offshore Windfarm plans to build 75 turbines to power more than 400,000 homes, close to existing infrastructure that will enable effective connection to South Australia’s grid.

All projects will need federal environmental approvals.

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