The need for industry collaboration on baseline surveys for offshore wind

RPS offshore approvals and marine specialists Tamara Al-Hashimi and Jeremy Fitzpatrick on why joining forces on environmental baseline surveys could help accelerate offshore wind development for everyone.  

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It’s safe to say there is a lot happening in the Australian offshore wind space right now. Governments and regulatory bodies are busy creating policies that will support the development of the offshore energy infrastructure needed to meet our renewable energy targets, while developers are working to map the pathways that their offshore wind projects will take − from investigation to approval, construction, and operation. 

While work − and indeed infrastructure development − in Australian waters and coastal zones has been going on for years (for oil and gas, shipping, telecommunications etc), the scale of ecological information required to inform the environmental assessment of planned offshore wind assets, is something entirely new.

We need a new approach to conducting ecological baseline studies that provides understanding at biologically relevant scales, supports regulators in making decisions and maximises cost efficiencies for offshore wind farm developers.

Understanding Australian marine environments

To build a successful offshore wind industry in Australia, proponents, regulators, and other stakeholders need to have confidence that the wind farms we build will meet renewable energy needs without unacceptable harm to marine environments. In order to do this, we need to understand those marine environments.

Over the last few years, RPS’ marine science team has harnessed its extensive history in offshore surveys and knowledge of Australian marine environments to design long-term baseline survey programs for offshore wind farms. This work is supporting the industry’s first movers to gather this critical information.

Our surveys cover a wide range of marine plants and animals, from microscopic invertebrates to whales, and from the seabed to the skies. We deliver these surveys to the highest levels of scientific robustness and high health and safety standards.

Gaps in our knowledge

At the moment, Australia has general information about many marine species. What we often lack is the detailed data needed to assess what an offshore wind development might mean for those species.

Environmental impact assessment (EIA) for offshore wind projects requires scientifically rigorous, detailed, time series data about how and where these animals spend their time. This is currently lacking for many of the areas that will be declared for future offshore wind development.

Robust baseline surveys need time, but time is in short supply

Baseline surveys must run for long enough to capture and describe seasonal variability and the complex migratory patterns of marine species in relation to license areas. These patterns may change from year to year so multi-year surveys are generally required

Collecting good data over multiple years adds confidence to the patterns we detail, and to the assessment of impacts on the environment. This is particularly the case in areas where no consistent research has been done and we are establishing baseline information for the very first time.

The spectres of climate change and global energy instability are hanging over our heads. Baseline environmental studies for offshore wind will be vital for solving these challenges as they will enable an offshore clean energy industry to flourish. But with the way we are currently going about them as an industry may be holding us back…

It’s a problem of time and resources. It’s a question of efficiency. It requires collaboration!

Why it’s time to team up

Marine studies are often done to support individual developments. But that means every project is essentially starting from scratch and may repeat work already undertaken by an adjacent developer. Smarter resourcing through working together would yield a better outcome.

Working independently doesn’t mean proponents won’t get the data they need for good project and environmental outcomes. But through collaboration we could generate better and more consistent data, and give greater confidence to the community and regulators that the industry can be effectively managed. We can avoid duplication of effort in the same or adjacent areas, and provide a solution that will benefit everyone’s EIA.


Related read: How partnerships will help us address the offshore wind industry's challenges

Two humpback whales breaching in clear blue water

Making the most of rare skills

The expertise required to design and implement baseline marine surveys (and to do this work to high quality and safety standards) is finite. Not just here in Australia, but globally. As the industry is growing every day, we may soon get to a point where there aren’t enough marine consultants with the expertise to do the work for every project proponent who needs it.

More broadly, we also need to think about the impact of impact assessment itself. When designing surveys our aim is to have as light a footprint on the species we are studying as possible. But monitoring planes are in the sky, boats are out at sea, and researchers are clambering on small offshore islands to study the species that live there.

The more separate studies, the more boats, planes, and researchers. Cumulative impact increases during the impact assessment process itself!

To achieve the level of offshore wind development Australia needs to meet clean energy targets, a different approach to studies is needed − one that could accelerate industry-level information gathering and create efficiencies for individual projects.  

A call-to-action on collaboration

After decades of delivering baseline studies and approvals for offshore projects in Australia, and offshore wind projects globally, RPS is calling for a coordinated industry co-investment approach to location-based studies. With declared areas for Australia’s offshore wind industry being finalised now, multiple parties will be looking to complete baseline investigations in the same zones.

A mechanism for collaboration, co-investment in studies and sharing of data, developed with the support of government, will reduce the time and costs associated with baseline investigations for each developer.

Opportunities to accelerate offshore wind

Baseline studies are only an early chapter in the story of Australia’s fledgling offshore wind industry. But it is through them that we will understand how to design, build, and operate wind farms that benefit Australian communities and the national climate rescue, while protecting marine species.

Ours is an industry born out of common need, and the pursuit of common good. If we embrace this philosophy and work together on baseline surveys, we can accelerate the journey towards our clean energy future while minimising our footprint on the planet. 


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