Offshore wind industry is missing a crucial piece of the planning puzzle
Australia’s offshore wind industry is poised to make a critical contribution to Australia’s decarbonisation and get the country across the finish line of a 100% renewable energy system.
Offshore wind will be crucial to the revival of industrial regions such as Gippsland, which was officially declared the country’s first offshore wind zone in December.
Victoria is leading the charge with its incredibly ambitious offshore wind targets, and has committed to a public interest in the sector through a revived State Electricity Commission. In NSW, consultation on an offshore wind zone for the Hunter will begin near Newcastle, with Wollongong expected to follow.
Governments see the huge opportunity for jobs, investment and emissions reduction in offshore wind. But there are still major gaps in national offshore wind planning that urgently need to be addressed by the Albanian government.
The biggest piece of the puzzle missing from Australia’s offshore wind policy is the need for a dedicated Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) framework that delivers best practice for protecting marine ecosystems while meeting social and economic goals.
As legal expert and climate councilor Dr Madeline Taylor argued in The Conversation, the best way to promote offshore wind in an ecologically sensitive way is through Marine Spatial Planning.
First, we need to look at countries that have hosted offshore wind for decades and addressed competing uses of the sea.
In 2014, the European Union (EU) issued a directive requiring all 22 coastal EU member states to draw up a Marine Spatial Planning Framework by 2021. This has enabled the delivery of more than 28 gigawatts of offshore wind in a way that balances the protection of marine ecosystems. This is the equivalent of about half of the total power generation capacity installed on Australia’s east coast.
Marine Spatial Planning is a means of coherently managing competing uses, titles and sectors in the seas and oceans. This approach invites diverse members of the community to negotiate how we use the ocean and plan industries such as offshore wind. It aims to reduce the risk of conflict and ensure that communities have a real seat at the table in shaping their own future.
Since 2018, Victoria has led the way in state waters with the Victorian Marine and Coastal Act. However, the vast majority of large-scale offshore wind will be deployed in Commonwealth waters, starting three nautical miles from the coastline.
One of the first steps in Marine Spatial Planning is a comprehensive baseline study of marine ecosystems so that we have a clear picture of what is happening in the environment and how it is being used.
At an industry level, offshore wind pioneer, the Star of the South, shows what best practice environmental monitoring looks like.
Through more than two years of ecological surveying in collaboration with Curtin, Deakin and Monash universities, it creates a rich picture of the marine ecology, fish, birds, marine mammals, currents and waves of South Gippsland. Now it can design the project in an ecologically holistic way using this data.
This is the kind of approach that is needed on a national scale as more offshore wind projects are proposed. While all offshore wind projects will be assessed under the Environmental Biodiversity Protection Act, this only considers the impact of individual projects, rather than looking at potential cumulative impacts or the marine environment as a whole.
Without a clear picture of the marine environment, it will be difficult to make public decisions about how to allocate marine space between different uses, such as designating offshore wind zones, enabling access to fishing, while strengthening marine conservation become Marine Spatial Planning is a useful way of making these practical decisions coherently.
Successful Marine Spatial Planning requires coordination and leadership from the federal government to fairly plan the offshore wind sector. This is a task that cannot be left to the private sector alone.
The aging Yallourn coal-fired power station will close by 2028, and construction on the $8 billion Star of the South offshore wind farm is expected to begin by 2025. It will likely be the first of several in Victoria and at that time NSW will likely begin its own plans for offshore wind. That gives Australia as little as two years to put marine spatial planning in place before any ribbons are cut or hard hats are donned.
We need to learn from the mistakes of other jurisdictions that were late to the game on Marine Spatial Planning, such as Ireland which is only now emerging from more than a lost decade of action on offshore wind.
Australia has already had a lost decade on climate, it doesn’t need another on offshore wind due to a failure to plan.
Given the amount of time and capital it takes to build these multi-billion dollar offshore wind projects, the stakes are high. It is crucial that the federal government gets Marine Spatial Planning right from the start.
Pat Simons is Yes 2 Renewables Community Coordinator at Friends of the Earth