Environment minister Greg Hunt has flagged a push towards investment “of a grand scale” in offshore wind in Australia – even though the technology is thought to be twice the price of onshore wind.
Hunt’s comments came during an interview at a Bloomberg New Energy Finance conference in Shanghai, when he was asked about the prospects for onshore wind in Australia, which has pretty much ground to a halt following the Abbott regime’s attack on the technology.
Apart from three wind farms that have won contracts with the ACT government’s auction system, there has been no new onshore wind farm construction in the last two years – since the Coalition was elected.
Hunt was asked about the outlook for wind energy, in clear reference to the dislike of wind farms by Abbott, former treasurer Joe Hockey and others in the Coalition, and the push by cross-bench Senators to stop the industry in its tracks.
“Look wind – my approach to wind has always been there are no moral qualities either way in different forms of energy and electricity,” Hunt said.
“They all have different capacities, some may be lower cost, some may be lower emissions, and as I’ve said in Australia beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
“We’re likely to see, however, a move to offshore wind.
“There are some very significant opportunities which are close to the electricity backbone, and I think that there are likely to be some major international financing and investment opportunities on a grand scale.
“And so we will try to facilitate offshore wind, and if it’s cost competitive grade, if it’s not then it doesn’t matter.
“But we want to remove any bureaucratic barriers.”
It’s the second last sentence that is the key, and the cause for surprise that Hunt has even mentioned the technology: offshore wind farms are thought to be at least twice the cost of offshore wind farms.
So much for the government pushing for the “lowest cost” technology. But as we have seen with the controversy over wind farms, and the push to invest in large-scale solar plants, the government is keen to exercise some preference on its energy sources.
The Coalition is also caught between fierce resistance to wind farms from influential parts of its constituents. Many oppose wind farms on the basis of their appearance and some on assumed health effects.
Even the NSW deputy health minister and mental health minister, a noted wind critic, says wind turbine blades create “pressure waves” that “resonate in the skulls” of people living as far away as five kilometres. Perhaps a move to offshore wind will reduce the controversy over wind technology.
The UK conservative government has effectively shifted all investment in wind energy from onshore sites to offshore, and this week announced plans for the world’s largest offshore wind farm. But the costs are high, with the global average cost for offshore project at more than £100MWh, although new “floating” wind farms may reduce those costs below £100MWh ($A215.62/MWH).
Hunt also spoke approvingly of solar technology developer RayGen, and said that wave and tidal investment were also “very prospective technologies”.
But he said the big game changer for energy systems was storage, and he reiterated that he was encouraging the Clean Energy Finance Corp and ARENA to work with that technology.
He also said that the 33,000GWh RET for 2020 – reduced from its previous level of 41,000GWh because of falling demand – was “rock solid”, even if demand continued to fall.
On the subject of off-shore wind farms, of which there are no known proposals in Australia, apart from some casual suggestions a few years back of giant turbines in Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay, UNSW energy expert Mark Diesendorf recently wrote that the technology could have some benefits.
“Offshore wind farms can utilise higher and less-variable wind speeds than onshore farms.
“There is often more suitable (and available) space to build wind farms in offshore waters than there is on land.
“Offshore wind turbines are far less visible than onshore turbines, which matters to a small minority of people.”
But, as Diesendorf also noted, the capital and maintenance costs associated with offshore wind farms are, at present, roughly double that of onshore wind farms.
And he noted Australia did not have the same population or area restraints faced by Europe and the US. In addition, most of Australia’s coastal waters are too deep for current wind turbine technology.
And it will be a long time before floating wind turbines – which are still at the pilot stage – are commercially available, although Scotland this week announced its plans for the first floating wind plant.
But he did say there were some potential sites located off the Western Australian coast near the South-West Integrated System (SWIS) electricity grid, while others are near the cities of Whyalla (South Australia), Gladstone (Queensland), Rockhampton (Queensland), Bundaberg (Queensland), Mackay (Queensland) and Melbourne (Victoria).
“As the offshore market expands, it’s hoped these costs will decline to the point where the advantage of higher electricity output will outweigh higher set-up and operational costs.”
Hunt, or his advisors, may have read Diesendorf’s article, pointing as he did to the “significant opportunities which are close to the electricity backbone.” But he might have to wait a while for the costs to come down.
In the meantime, it was a hardly a ringing endorsement of the onshore wind industry.