Op Ed: Blown away by offshore wind's potential

The Hunter Valley’s rich coal seams helped sustain convicts William and Mary Bryant on their epic escape from Sydney’s grisly penal colony back in 1791. Now, the wind that powered their tiny sailboat to Newcastle’s mineral-lined shores stands to generate a new era of prosperity for the regional economy.

This week, the Albanese Government opened consultation on the establishment of an offshore wind zone in waters off the Hunter. This utility-scale infrastructure could help decarbonise the region’s heavy industries and keep them internationally competitive as global markets move toward net zero. It also comes with an opportunity to revitalise local manufacturing through cheaper, cleaner power, and create thousands of new jobs in construction, operation, and the supply of local materials to the industry.

Firmed renewable energy is key to Australia’s energy security – not even Vladimir Putin can stop the wind from blowing and the sun from shining. The nation of Denmark, with only a fraction of our coastline, sources almost half its electricity from wind turbines and 15% of its energy from offshore wind turbines, some 32 years after installing the world’s first offshore windfarm. 
Officials from my department will host seven community sessions in the week starting Monday 6 March to listen to feedback on the proposal, provide further information, and answer any questions about this potential offshore wind zone ranging from 10 to 50km offshore.

The power generation from offshore wind is remarkable, with the International Energy Agency giving offshore wind its own label - variable baseload power. Incredibly – one spin of one turbine generates as much power as rooftop solar does over 24 hours. And they spin around 15 times a minute.

Importantly – offshore wind is often available when solar and onshore wind decline, during the evening peaks and overnight. And critically, where offshore wind has been established in other nations, the main career pathways into the industry are from existing energy and offshore sectors. Utilising expertise from the mining and energy sectors in offshore wind makes great sense. Whether it be trades essential to mines, grid transmission capabilities, metallurgical skills, or maritime, agriculture and professional services – the region enjoys a plethora of transferrable riches. 

Logistically, the Hunter is ideally located for offshore wind. Close to energy-hungry manufacturers and connected to existing transmission networks, the area from Muswellbrook to Lake Macquarie is home to industrial hubs connected to a deep-water port. The hubs could enjoy a manufacturing renaissance on the back of offshore wind, with new stakes equipping Australia’s energy transformation with wind turbine components, batteries, solar panels and electrolysers for hydrogen production.

Local mining equipment specialist Molycop already sources vast amounts of power from renewable sources, and Tomago Aluminium has targeted 100% renewables by 2030. Other businesses, aware of increasing demand for low-carbon products and inputs globally, are also looking to follow with their own transition. Baseload electricity from offshore wind could help them build scale internationally, making them more competitive and more resilient.

Offshore wind will be critical to Australia’s green hydrogen industry. Combined with energy-storage breakthroughs and our government’s reforms, over time it could help end load-shedding episodes that periodically impact Tomago Aluminium and other energy-intensive industries. Offshore power could also help Australia maintain its resources status in the post-fossil fuel age: as a renewable energy superpower shipping green hydrogen to the world.

The proposed wind zone would sit between 10km and 50km off the city of Newcastle, arching north to south behind coal ships and other freighters waiting to enter Newcastle Harbour. The zone excludes a 25-nautical mile radius from Williamtown RAAF Base to accommodate defence aviation.

The Hunter is one of the first six regions with world-class potential for offshore wind to be considered across the country. Waters off Gippsland in eastern Victoria were just recently declared the country’s first official offshore wind zone, following two months of public consultation and amendments to the original proposed zone. Genuine consultation with communities is something the Albanese Government takes seriously – and this Hunter offshore wind zone is no different. 
Environmental approvals and further community input would also precede any future windfarm. The consultation opened this week is just the first step for the Hunter – so I encourage residents, manufacturers, industry and business to have their say to help us manage how to introduce this well-established industry to Australia, in a way that works for all Novocastrians and the broader region.

Published in the Newcastle Herald