Floating wind farms are the next big boost for the grid

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

More specifically, he talks about strategically placed floating farms, each capable of replacing an old coal-fired power plant and connected to the electricity grid.

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

“The timing is not bad, we are not late,” he tells the AAP.

South Korea, Japan and Taiwan already have offshore wind power in their emission-reducing energy arsenal and their European development partners are ready to take advantage of the gale force of Australia’s Roaring Forties.

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

Modeling in Australia by independent developers and experts shows that offshore wind power can operate at high capacity when onshore wind and solar power are at low – at night.

In addition, the most advanced project, Star of the South, near Gippsland, would have dealt with Victoria’s peak demand during heat waves and the deadly failure of coal-fired power plants.

Star of the South is supported by the Australian founders and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners (CIP), who are global leaders in offshore wind.

Australia has a “second-move advantage” as technology costs fall while new federal laws provide investment and regulatory certainty, says Dr. Hughes.

He says getting a “social license” is also vital.

Concerns about the proliferation of onshore renewables and 10,000km of new transmissions pose a risk to governments looking to overhaul the grid to meet climate and energy needs, particularly when building on farmland and close to cities.

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

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

“There is strong support for building on the strengths of regional communities and continuing their tradition of power generation,” the submission reads.

After years of delay, Energy Minister Angus Taylor’s offshore electricity laws were finally passed in both houses in November 2021 to provide security for investors and regions looking to take advantage of new technologies.

With in-depth industry consultation on the support range of regulations in place, the new Labor government is not expected to get in the way.

The Offshore Electricity Infrastructure (OEI) framework for permits, fees and fees is expected to accelerate 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 to build four offshore projects off the coast of NSW with a total capacity of 7.5 gigawatts, ready to take advantage of transmission capacity that will open when the coal plants close.

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

For scale, 2 GW is roughly equivalent to AGL’s former Loy Yang coal-fired power plant, which supplies nearly a third of Victoria’s power as a vital part of the existing electrical grid – when operational.

Australian-owned Nexsphere is exploring sites for the Bass Offshore Wind Energy project in northeast Tasmania, with an aim to come online from 2026, subject to approvals.

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

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

The link is a 1,500 megawatt capacity underwater and underground electricity connection, or giant span cable, long proposed to pump renewable energy 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 reach net zero by 2050, according to the Victorian government.

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

Together, the three projects would supply about 3.6 million homes and bring an estimated investment of US$ 18 billion.

“We are leading the country in offshore wind energy and our targets will create thousands of jobs, new industries and help reduce our carbon emissions,” said Energy Minister Lily D’Ambrosio, releasing a consultation document this month.

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

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

Christian Downie, from the School of Regulation and Global Governance at the Australian National University, says the energy transition will present 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 can get a head start,” he recently told ambassadors and policymakers.

“You have to say that after (the federal election) there’s probably a better chance that the government will start acting faster.”

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

“Our coal and gas exports have been the basis of our relationship with countries like Japan and Korea,” says Professor Downie.

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

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

European governments are already taking offshore wind energy seriously.

Belgium, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands recently signed a cooperation agreement to build the “Green Energy Hub of Europe”.

Harnessing offshore North Sea 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 in which it must be achieved, says David Scaysbrook, a leading investor in renewable energy.

The co-founder of Quinbrook Infrastructure Partners says offshore wind has typically been reserved for large international utilities because it’s a specialized activity.

“Offshore wind power and harnessing offshore wind power should be a top technology priority because, at scale, it can be among the cheapest sources of renewable energy,” he says.

Meanwhile, offshore wind might solve NIMBY problems (not in my backyard), but the projects can interfere with whale migratory patterns.

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

SA Offshore Windfarm plans to build 75 turbines to power more than 400,000 homes, close to existing infrastructure that will allow effective connection to the South Australian grid.

All projects will need federal environmental approvals.

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