Star of the South is the first proposed offshore wind farm to be developed in Australia. As offshore approvals lead, RPS is conducting the offshore technical studies to inform the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).
To deliver this flagship project, we’re working with our own specialist locally based team, with input from our UK team. We're also partnering with a range of collaborators. Read on to find out how the power of partnerships is supporting Australian offshore wind development.
Surveys are integral to understanding the ecological importance of a site, and this is especially true offshore of Australia, where marine environments are far less studied. In fact, in the Gippsland region, where Star of the South is being developed, many marine areas have never been studied before.
Our survey work fell into five main scopes (birds, fish, benthic or seabed habitats, marine mammals and coastal processes) – together making up the biggest baseline marine survey program ever undertaken in Victoria, and the first ever undertaken for offshore wind in Australia.
As the offshore wind industry develops in Australia, it’s vital that assessments and survey work are scientifically sound, while allowing for flexibility in design as any plans may need to evolve as new technologies develop. For the RPS team, there is also a firm desire to establish robust approaches that can be applied to future Australian projects.
With this in mind, we have built partnerships that provide our client with the best science and a thorough understanding of the local environment.
RPS first worked on the Star of the South project in 2017, completing an early feasibility study on the site. Work on the Marine Ecology Survey Program started in 2019. We were selected for the project due to a proven track record of international offshore wind experience, and a long history completing baseline studies for Australian oil and gas projects. Internationally, our in-house specialists cover a broad spectrum of relevant skills, including marine ecology, ornithology, metocean survey, data capture, impact assessment and project management.
Despite the size and skillsets of our in-house teams, we looked externally for additional expertise to ensure we offered our client the best possible scientific and technological methodologies. We partnered with several universities, benefitting from their specialist research skills and local experience via the foremost experts in their disciplines. As baseline data on species likely to be impacted by offshore wind development is extremely limited in Australia, any prior research is critical.
One example of our collaborative partnerships is with the team from Curtin University’s Centre for Marine Science and Technology, who specialise in underwater noise research and marine mammal monitoring. They are acknowledged as global leaders in their field, with state-of-the-art technology and capabilities. Their role involved the deployment of underwater noise recorders to detect vocalising marine mammal species and their location.
We were also joined on the project by members of Deakin University’s School of Life and Environmental Science – Professor John Arnould, Associate Professor Daniel Ierodiaconou and Dr Justin Rizzari. John is a noted Australian seabird and marine mammal specialist, who has spent many years researching the local seabird and fur seal species on the Islands around Bass Strait. His work on Star of the South investigated species that breed in the local area, tagging them to determine foraging ranges and behaviour, even tracking birds all the way to the northern hemisphere. Daniel and Justin were involved in undertaking fish surveys and were chosen due to their experience with underwater video fish survey methods and their extensive knowledge of Victorian fish biodiversity.
We worked with seabird expert Associate Professor Rohan Clarke of Monash University, who literally wrote the book on Australian bird life (‘The Australian Bird Guide’). Rohan has exceptional at-sea pelagic ornithology experience. He was involved in species identification of aerial survey imagery and boat-based surveys to detect and record species and their flight heights, as well as tagging pelagic species at sea. This expertise was essential in understanding the diverse Australian species.
The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) were involved in white shark monitoring through the use of acoustic monitors. White sharks previously tagged off Australia’s east coast were recorded when they travelled near an acoustic monitor, gathering information on how many sharks are in the region, how old they are, and which areas are most important to them.
These experts provided vital local knowledge to the survey program, as well as an extensive understanding of the species within Bass Strait. The data collected has enabled a detailed understanding of the existing environment, and the ecological importance of this location to particular species. Our team is now using this data to determine the potential impacts of the project as part of the environmental impact assessment and to inform the project’s design.
Collaborating with universities has the added advantage of shared access to resources such as specialist equipment. Delays for new research permit applications can also be avoided by partnering with existing permit holders. Our partners displayed an impressive ability to mobilise quickly in this new, offshore wind setting; we were able to leverage their established protocols, which would otherwise have taken time to build.
Some of our connections came about due to existing relationships, but each partnership grew due to the excitement we all had for this first-of-its-kind Australian project, as well as gaining knowledge of species behaviour for the first time. These partnerships complemented our own skills and experience, such as in the pairing of university ecological expertise with RPS knowledge of the impact assessment process and offshore wind industry globally. We enjoyed a collaborative approach (which can be unusual in the development space) and were able to learn a lot through our sharing of knowledge and skills.
The team’s collaborations are helping to address some familiar industry challenges. One of these is assessing collision risk for birds, which has previously presented major barriers to offshore wind development in some markets, such as the UK.
For this project, flight height measurement is one of the most critical data sets to determine if birds are flying at rotor height. The more usual way to capture flight height is with aerial surveys using high resolution images and complex mathematics. However, in Australia, the similarity of bird species makes them harder to identify and therefore allocating a height can result in a large range, if not identified to species level using this method. This is due to differences in bird sizes between each species.
Working with our partner APEM, we addressed this challenge during the second year of studies by incorporating LiDAR as an effective and accurate way to locate birds in flight. This is the first time this method has been used for offshore wind baseline surveys, especially for a survey programme of this scale.
Watch this short video from Star of the South to hear RPS’ Anna Mildner and APEMs’ Camil-Andrei Danila talking about the project's aerial bird surveys.
(pictured: members of the survey team)
Another component of this study was tagging seabird species with altimeters for additional information on flight heights during variable weather conditions. Our partners John Arnould (Deakin University) and Rohan Clarke (Monash University) captured birds on local islands and at sea to gain important information on how wind speeds influence bird flight behaviour, as well as where the birds travel. For many of these species, this was the first time flight heights have been recorded, providing critical information to inform the impact assessment and project design.
Our project work was completed successfully with no notable delays and no safety incidents, despite the country’s strictest lockdowns for Covid-19.
For RPS Senior Environmental Consultant Anna Mildner, project management involved coordination of a large cohort of internal specialists and external partners, but this all adds to the fun of her work! She says:
“It’s exciting to work on the first project of its kind in Australia, as we’re paving the way of how to do it in future projects. We’re pioneers working in a new industry in an under studied environment, with a new regulator and evolving regulations. There are many challenges, but that’s what makes this so exciting to work on and deliver for our client.”
As well as technical studies for the EIA, the RPS team also recently completed the two-year Marine Ecology Survey Programme (MESP) of baselines surveys (working with the organisations shown below). Some of these studies were monthly or bi-monthly.
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