Interview with Melinda James, ABC Illawarra

MELINDA JAMES: An offshore wind zone for the Illawarra, floating turbines is what's being talked about, from Wombarra to Gerringong is where the proposed offshore wind zone is, proposed 1,400 plus square kilometres with the potential to generate up to 4.2 gigawatts from offshore wind farms.

Now this draft zone is open for community consultation. It will be at least 10 kms out from shore, up to 30 kms out at Kiama, apparently to deliver 2,500 jobs in construction, 1,250 jobs ongoing. You'll have your chance to have your say on this offshore wind zone, and you can learn more this week. I'll give you details on the six community information sessions that will be held from Bulli to Gerringong next week.

But I spoke to the Federal Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Chris Bowen, he's in charge of gazetting the offshore wind zone and making the final decisions, and I spoke to him about whether community concerns can in fact lead to changes in the way an offshore wind farm could be established off the Illawara coast.

CHRIS BOWEN: As you know, I announced a couple of weeks ago that we were beginning consultation on a new offshore wind zone for the Illawarra, which is a good thing, it'll create a lot of jobs, a lot of renewable energy. But we also want to make sure we get it right, and we want to make sure that the community is consulted.

So over the period between 18th and 21st September, there will be a series of what we call community information sessions where people can drop in, talk to officials from the Department of Climate Change and Energy about what's being proposed, what it will look like, how it will work, what issues need to be taken into account.

So, for example, between 4 pm and 7 pm at the Bulli Senior Citizens Centre on Monday the 18th, there will be one, also there will be ones at Port Kembla, Wollongong, Shellharbour, Kiama and Gerringong, and as I said, people can come in, ask questions, receive information. People can put in submissions, and indeed I encourage it, and we'll consider all those submissions when I'm ultimately deciding at the end of the consultation period which ends in mid October, whether to declare the zone and whether the boundaries in the zone are the right ones that we've put out.

MELINDA JAMES: Judging from how this process has already gone in Gippsland and in The Hunter as well, what were some of the most common sort of bits of feedback, or what did people most commonly put in their submissions to those offshore wind industry zones?

CHRIS BOWEN: We get all sorts, as you'd imagine. We get people saying, "Look, support renewable energy, but concerned about the amenity, how it looks from my home" or concerned about the whales and migration, or concerned about the bird life, or concerned about shipping, concerned about rec fishing or commercial fishing, all of which are, you know, views I want to hear and take into account.

So both in Gippsland and The Hunter, the zones that I finally declared were different to the ones that we originally put out for consultation, because that's how the process should work, you'd be a bit concerned if the zones ended up being exactly the same, it would mean the consultation wasn't real. It is real.

If people put in submissions, you know, to be frank, saying, "Look, we don't think climate change is real and we're against renewable energy," I don't take those submissions too seriously, but when people put in submissions saying, you know, "Support it, but you know, these are my concerns," or "these are the issues I'd like to see addressed," I certainly read those, take them into account and think about whether there's any way we can accommodate those concerns.

MELINDA JAMES: So, for example, with the Hunter zone, with the community of Norah Head that, as I understand it, was quite vocal about moving the zone a little further offshore from them and maybe even a little further north, was that largely visual amenity for them that they were concerned about? Why did you listen to them and then act on their concerns?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, there are a range of concerns for the Hunter, yes, visual amenity for Norah Head, other people raised the impact of a bird called the Gould's petrel, which breeds out of a particular island, so in that case I moved the turbines further away from that island. I did move it further away from Norah Head, from, you know, originally 10Ks to much further out, and that means, you know, that visual amenity issue was dealt with, and you know, there's still some people who still think they don't want any wind farms, but others who are, you know, said, "Yes, look, our concerns have now been taken into account." 

We already consider when we put the original zone out, things like fishing zones, both rec and commercial, which I avoid the most popular fishing zones, but we still take into account feedback.

Now, of course, it's important people understand too that this is the first stage of the process. So it's really a three stage process. We consult about the zone, and I declare a zone, then we call for expressions of interest from wind farm operators about who wants to operate wind turbines in the zone, they have to put in very detailed submissions, and we take into account how they'll deal with concerns, like whale migration, bird life, fishing interaction, and then the ones that we pick as the preferred options, then they have to go through environmental approvals as well. So there's really three bites of cherry to make sure we get all this right, all those issues and concerns.

Just on fishing, I mean a lot of people just assume that fishing and offshore winds can't co exist. Well, there are issues we need to work through, but they can co exist in the right circumstances, and in fact, you know, there's actually scientific evidence to show that fish life are attracted to wind turbines, they like swimming around them. So you know, we work that issue through and make sure that we're getting the balance right.

MELINDA JAMES: How much are you looking to overseas experience when you're weighing up these things? We've heard as well that the Netherlands, for example, have at times stopped their turbines for a period during birds' migratory seasons. Are those the sorts of things you're looking at, how other countries are dealing with this?

CHRIS BOWEN: Yeah, there's all sorts of innovative technologies out there. The Netherlands is a world leader on offshore wind, as is Denmark and other countries; basically, you know, there's many countries doing this now, Australia is not the first, in fact we are very late to it frankly. But yes, whether it is, you know, time of day restrictions or migration restrictions on the turbine, you know, of a longer period, or whether it's height restrictions, which is what I did in the Hunter, for Defence reasons, or other changes, there's technologies available, there's corridors you can provide for whales. 

Now, whales are very smart animals, they do know how to navigate around oil rigs and gas rigs and cargo ships and cruise ships already, so again they can co exist, but also, you know, we do take those things seriously and look at international best practice and figure out how we can best manage these things.

MELINDA JAMES: You've said that in some instances, for example, like Norah Head, people's concerns about visual amenity did factor into your decision making. If   a lot of people just don't like the look of them off the coast. Is that enough?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, look, it's not about who's loudest, it's not a popularity poll, so we don't, you know, count up the submissions, but we do take them into account and take them seriously, and if somebody's put in a really valid argument, as they have, for example, in The Hunter about that bird life, I've said, "Oh, yeah, they've made a very good point," then we take that into account. And amenity's important, it's not the only thing, and look, there are some people who say, "Look, I don't mind, I'm happy to look at them, I'm looking at cargo ships all day now, you know, I don't mind looking out at wind turbines." 

But 10 kms, you know, a lot easier to see than say 30 or 40 kms out, you know, you've really   it's a very different thing, if you can think about what you can see in your street that's 10kms away compared to 30 or 40kms away, it's a very different thing. But you know, people are entitled to put their views forward, even if it is just about amenity, and we look at it and consider it, and we make the appropriate call at the end of the day. It doesn't even everyone's going to be happy or say, you know, "The Government's got it perfect," but everybody does get a good say.

MELINDA JAMES: In relation to shipping lanes in Port Kembla, one of the country's busiest ports, are there concerns there, or do you feel like the two can co exist?

CHRIS BOWEN: Oh, the two can certainly co exist. I mean you mentioned the Netherlands. I was in the Netherlands in January looking at this. Port of Rotterdam is one of the world's busiest, biggest ports, and also the Netherlands has huge amounts of offshore winds, in a much smaller area, their coastline is tiny compared to ours, for example, and they have wind turbines, you know, all around. And we consult with AMSA, which is the Maritime Safety Authority, but putting out the zone for consultation, we also consult with them during the process. Yes, we do provide for shipping corridors, but cargo ships and cruise ships and everybody else can co exist very, very easily with offshore winds with the right management plans in place, which is what we do.

MELINDA JAMES: So that is Energy and Climate Change Minister, Chris Bowen.