At the start of a new decade, Australia has a golden opportunity to seize the benefits of offshore wind – and at a moment of profound national soul-searching over climate issues and the need to transition our energy industry, we simply must not squander it.

We Australians love to refer to our sunburnt southern land as the ‘lucky country’ and for years it seemed that way, thanks to an abundance of natural resources be they energy-related such as coal, solar, onshore wind, or mining-related such as iron ore, gold or uranium, amongst many others.

But Australia has felt rather less lucky of late – and the bushfires that ravaged the nation in late 2019 and early 2020 crystallised the growing concerns of most Australians over climate change.

The nation was already facing major challenges over the need to reshape its energy sector given the impending closure of all existing coal-powered generators by 2048, which provide the majority of electricity in Australia, and the demands of a population that’s predicted to double to 50 million by 2050.

In that light, it is incredibly timely that on 3 January 2020 the Commonwealth Government released a discussion paper for a proposed Offshore Clean Energy Infrastructure regime (specifically including offshore wind), signaling the intent to provide a framework for development of this relatively new (at least to Australia) technology, with only the 2.2GW Star of the South advancing off the Victoria coastline currently putting the nation on the global offshore wind map.

The discussion paper represents a balanced opportunity for government and industry to work together using an amalgam of international examples and local requirements to shape a suitable regime to promote and regulate offshore wind (and other marine-based clean energy technologies).

With 85% of Australia’s population living within 50km of the coastline, the potential for offshore wind should be more obvious than other forms of energy where the resource is located much further away from its intended market, and often with little chance of actually transmitting resultant electricity via a clogged grid to the final customer.

Offshore wind provides many benefits to a transitioning energy system that go beyond the mere supply of electricity. These include:

  • Amenable connection to transmit electricity to the market given that the central grid is located close to coal mines and generators which are in proximity to Australia’s coastline
  • Given the large scale of offshore wind farms, employment and investment is large and can help transition regions and communities
  • Greater energy supply and network reliability, given the less intermittent generation of offshore wind and a profile that often meets peak demand periods
  • Avoidance of many competing land use, visual and noise-based issues more familiar with land-based projects
  • Utilising Australia’s strong history in energy generation and marine-based industry to transition workers from traditional fossil-fuel based industries that may suffer from impending closures over the coming decades
  • Reducing carbon emissions and addressing climate change, which is especially relevant in Australia given the recent bushfires

The Commonwealth Government Discussion Paper is a very positive signal that Australia is ready to investigate and legislate to promote and regulate an exciting industry. But the question remains whether Australia can move quickly enough to exploit an incredible opportunity that is being recognised in other nations competing for infrastructure investment capital.

The rise of the sector in the Asia-Pacific region in countries such as Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Thailand, as well as globally, highlights that many nations have recognised the opportunities created by offshore wind, and it would be foolhardy to think that investment capital will be deployed to nations that do not show signs of action to support the industry.

The release of the discussion paper, and the intent for the resultant proposed legislation to be in place during 2020, suggest that Australia will take its chance to shore up its energy, investment and employment future. Hopefully, this will be one opportunity that Australia will not let slip.

Andy Evans is a co-founder of the Star of the South and co-founder CEO of Offshore Wind Australia. Offshore Wind Australia will hold the country's first offshore wind conference in Melbourne on 2 April 2020. More details are available here.