Key lessons Australia can take from the UK offshore wind experience

With the Australian offshore wind industry in its infancy, it’s important we establish some fundamentals at the outset. We can do that – in part – if we look a little further offshore.

Offshore wind offers Australia an opportunity to accelerate towards net zero targets. There’s much work to be done to get the industry established, but progress is being made.

The Federal Government recently declared an area off Gippsland’s coast in Victoria for possible offshore wind development, which is currently out for public consultation. It is also looking at possible areas in New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia and South Australia. The Victorian Government has formally set offshore wind targets – at least 2GW by 2032, 4GW by 2035 and 9GW by 2040.

In places like Europe and North America, the industry has been up and running for a while. And in the United Kingdom alone, RPS has worked in this space for more than 20 years.

There are some advantages to being in the early phases of the Australian industry’s development. The main one is that we can learn from our colleagues overseas. We can get a good understanding about what works and what doesn’t – and apply what’s relevant to our local context.

Getting the very first steps right

There’s a lot of talk about the challenges of developing an offshore wind industry. Valid concerns around things like supply chain, transmission infrastructure, community support and port access. But often missing in these conversations is the importance of getting the very first steps right: site selection, developing a successful environmental approvals strategy, and design development. Essentially the things that happen well before a turbine is built.

These steps take time. Environmental assessments take years to gather enough data to make accurate findings. And the importance of these processes can’t be underestimated: this first phase is the very thing that will determine if an offshore wind farm can be constructed in a certain area of ocean. Or not.

If we get these first steps right, then there will be benefits down the line. There’ll be more certainty built into the development process, which will help us achieve the staggering growth that’s anticipated.

Exponential growth – why we need to learn fast

In less than 30 years, we could see a huge jump in global energy production from offshore wind farms.

Figures from the Global Wind Energy Council show in 2021, the world’s offshore wind capacity was 48 GW. By 2050 this is expected to grow to 2,000 GW – if we are to meet net zero targets.

The urgency to create an efficient system to support rapid growth is obvious. But we don’t need to start from scratch in Australia – we can build on knowledge from our UK colleagues who once stood in our shoes.

 

Lesson 1: site selection

The importance of a thorough feasibility or site selection process cannot be underestimated. This early assessment aims to filter out inappropriate sites – and stop organisations investing or speculating in locations that will never get approved.

The assessment takes into account a number of things including spatial constraints, shipping lanes, and protected areas like marine parks.

The UK has so far gone through four rounds of this.

While six areas have already been declared in the Bass Strait off Gippsland, Australia will see further declarations of areas for offshore wind development, which will be critical to meet future demand and support industry growth.

 

Lesson 2: approvals strategy

Another crucial enabler of success is having a clear pathway towards the approvals needed to build an offshore wind farm.

Australia has a more complex regulatory regime than the UK. Projects in Australia must meet the environmental requirements of the Commonwealth’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, the Offshore Electricity Infrastructure Act 2021, and relevant state legislation. In Victoria, for example, there is the Environment Effects Act 1978 and the Marine and Coastal Act 2018.

Creating a clear approvals strategy with a detailed plan for navigating these approvals pathways is a priority.

Ormonde Offshore Wind Farm, Irish Sea. Ben Bardon Photography

Ormonde Offshore Wind Farm, Irish Sea. Ben Bardon Photography

Lesson 3: flexibility in design – the project design envelope

This is probably one of the most important lessons from the UK project’s approvals experience.

Usually, projects requiring environmental assessment for established industries such as oil and gas have sufficient detail in design and scope, for example construction methods and equipment are well known and understood, and flexibility in design is not necessarily required. But this is not the case for offshore wind projects for two main reasons:

  1. The rapid innovation in offshore infrastructure and technology. A design put forward today, will be out of date in a few years’ time.
  2. The length of the approvals process in an emerging market. Development from project conception to construction could be expected to take somewhere between six to eight years in the mature UK market. It is expected to be longer in the emerging Australian market. A project with a locked in, detailed project description may not have sufficient flexibility in its design parameters, or construction methods, by the time the project receives approval for construction.

To create certainty for investment while maintaining flexibility in design, the UK established the project design envelope – an approach that involves describing an ‘envelope’ or range of key design parameters.

It provides a level of flexibility in the event that all the details of the project are not all known when the project’s approvals are submitted. Things like the number of turbines, foundation type, location of export cable route and the definitive location of any onshore substations may change along the way as technology advances and information from studies comes in.

Australia will need a similar ‘envelope’ approach to give offshore wind projects the flexibility they need to succeed.

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Lesson 4: planning a robust baseline survey

A robust baseline survey gives project developers and regulators the solid set of data needed to carry out the environmental impact assessment for the project. The first offshore wind farm in the UK was commissioned in 2003. Since then, more and more baseline information has been built up as each new offshore wind project has progressed through the approvals process. The UK also has a wealth of regional long-term survey data that is often used to augment project baseline data needs.

In Australia, we have a much more complex environment and far less baseline data to inform impact assessments. So, project developers are going to have to develop robust baseline programs to address these challenges.

We can do this by understanding existing data, determining the scope of studies to fill data gaps and consulting with and agreeing data requirements with regulators. The impact of inadequate baseline information on overall project development should not be underestimated.

Tapping into the wealth of knowledge in the UK – for example, new and technologies emerging for high-risk species such seabirds – can help us avoid mistakes along the way.

With that said, not all of the UK experience will apply here. Our environment and species are different. Timeframes and methods may not be directly comparable. In Australia we can build from our significant experience in conducting large scale baseline survey programs for industries such as oil and gas projects.

Setting the tone and standard

At RPS we’re in a unique place where we can take the relevant intel from our UK colleagues and tap into our wealth of local knowledge in Australian environmental approvals and marine and coastal surveys.

There are of course many other lessons that we can learn from overseas, including strategies for addressing supply chain and onshore infrastructure challenges. But as we establish the industry here in Australia – getting the first phase right is vital. It can set both the tone, and the standard.

If we incorporate this knowledge from the outset, we can put developers, regulators, governments, and communities on the right path. We can give ourselves a head start on the development of an offshore wind industry that is not only environmentally sound, but positioned to grow in the sustainable, rapid way that Australia, and our climate needs.

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