Strong winds blowing off Australia’s rugged coastlines will soon power many of our homes, as offshore wind farms are about to begin construction. But our new search emphasizes the need to ensure that any potential risk to marine life is properly mitigated.
The Federal Government recently made a series of announcements as part of its A$20 billion National plan rewiring, ahead of last night’s federal budget. This includes $1.5 billion to accelerate the development of offshore wind farms and renewable energy areas in Victoria, as well as funding for the Marinus Link (a power cable linking Tasmania and Victoria) and pumped hydro developments.
By adopting what the energy world calls the “big three– offshore wind, solar and onshore wind – Australia’s renewable energy exports alone could be worth it $333 billion every year. That’s almost triple what we get from fossil fuels now.
Our research calls for Australia to integrate marine spatial planning processes into offshore wind regulation. This considers how infrastructure and ecosystems can co-locate, mapping the best sites to produce the most electricity with the least environmental impact.
With effective regulation, the Australian offshore wind industry can be a leader in environmentally sustainable development.
Why is offshore wind important?
Over the past decade, construction costs for offshore wind infrastructure have decreased by 50% worldwide. It is becoming a key ingredient in Australia’s energy mix, as the World Wind Energy Council Australia’s offshore wind potential is estimated at 4,963 gigawatts.
In fact, if all of Australia’s proposed offshore wind projects were built, their combined energy capacity would be bigger than all of Australia’s coal-fired power stations.
Victoria is leading the way with a target of reaching 2 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2032 and 9 gigawatts by 2040. This means that some 20% of Victoria’s energy mix will come from clean, affordable and reliable offshore wind within the next ten years.
Despite our rich wind resourcesthere are currently no large-scale offshore wind projects in Australia, due to a lack of legal framework which started its activities in 2022. Australia also does not currently hold a federal offshore wind target.
Lack of regulation in Australia
Australia lacks clear targets for offshore renewable energy planning. This led the World Wind Energy Council to call for “a clear, transparent and streamlined rental and authorization process” in Australia.
The environmental protections currently in place are generic and need to be refined according to the needs of offshore wind.
Before an Australian offshore wind project can start and obtain a commercial licence, the developer must make several important assessments and proposals, including a management planto the Offshore Infrastructure Registrar.
This management plan must comply with the Australian National Environment Act, which aims to promote environmentally sustainable development.
Yet Australia’s environmental law – called Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) – has been widely criticized for failing to achieve this goal, especially following a independent review in 2021.
How Offshore Wind Farms Can Impact Marine Life
Marine spatial planning can provide clear ecological, social and environmental conservation goals, while mapping important ecological areas to protect.
Research is still emerging on the extent to which offshore wind farms can impact marine ecosystems. A European Environment Agency This year’s report indicates some potential impacts, although these are documented in Europe rather than Australia.
This includes underwater noise during construction, which can displace some species, cause hearing damage to nearby mammals and fish, and interfere with the echolocation of animals such as porpoises.
Research has also shown that during operation some species of seabirds were moved or attracted to the turbines (although collision rates were low).
On the other hand, depending on their design, offshore wind turbines can provide habitat for certain marine species, such as with artificial reefs on their foundations.
These pressures can be managed through effective marine spatial planning. Australia has marine spatial planning processes for other areas, such as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and parts of Victoria.
But we have not yet created requirements for them in the offshore wind legal framework at the federal level.
Countries are doing better than Australia
Several countries have adopted marine spatial planning policies and regulations for their offshore wind sectors.
The European Union paved the way, like 22 Coastal Member States have adopted marine spatial planning processes. This strong policy framework has enabled the EU to achieve 28.4 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity while ensuring environmental protection are in place.
The Netherlands has an ambitious offshore wind target of 70 gigawatts by 2050. That’s double what the whole of the EU has already installed.
The Netherlands uses marine spatial planning to sustainably achieve this goal. It is supported by the Dutch Ecological Offshore Wind Energy Program, which generates basic scientific knowledge on how to protect sensitive marine environments in assessments determining new project sites.
A piece of the puzzle
Marine Spatial Planning is crucial to integrating offshore wind with other ways we use the ocean, such as for fishing and preserving traditional Sea Country. At the same time, it must preserve ecosystems and promote energy justice, where all members of society have access to clean energy. Marine spatial planning can find this balance.
Formulating Marine Spatial Planning goals in consultation with the offshore wind industry, communities and other stakeholders is key to ensuring its success and building an equitable ocean economy.
There is still a lot to do to ensure we continue a successful transition away from fossil fuels and avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Offshore wind is just one exciting piece of the puzzle.