Bango Wind Farm turbines Boorowa
Clouds are gathering over the Albanese government's rollout of wind power zones. Image by Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS
  • politics

Albanese government faces winds of change amid concerns

Paul Osborne September 23, 2023

The first windmill for making electricity came into operation in 1887.

Scottish scientist James Blyth used it to light his holiday home in the village of Marykirk.

The device – which featured canvas sails, a 10-metre shaft and a dynamo driven from the flywheel using a rope – generated enough power to light 10 25-volt bulbs in a “moderate breeze”.

The breakthrough was given a breathless write-up in Sydney’s Australian Town and Country Journal: “On one occasion, when there was a good breeze, he stored enough power in half a day to give light for three or four evenings.”

Wind power is once again grabbing headlines in Australia, but for entirely different reasons.

The Albanese government is seeking to use the technology to meet its net-zero by 2050 emissions target, while keeping the lights on and easing coal-fired power out of the system.

It has set aside a number of regions around the nation’s coastline for the development of large-scale wind power.

The first wind zone to be declared was off Victoria’s Gippsland region, with the Hunter declared in July and four other areas – Illawarra (NSW), Portland (Victoria), northern Tasmania and Perth-Bunbury (WA) – expected to follow.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton is not a fan.

“People in metropolitan areas, or outer metropolitan areas … don’t want those wind turbines, so why should people in regional areas be forced to take them when they’re not reliable, and you need to firm them up,” he told reporters in Melbourne this week.

He pointed to their impact on seabeds, the non-recyclable nature of the blades and their 20-year life span.

Concerns have also been raised in Europe following a report by the EU Court of Auditors.

The body said rapidly expanding offshore wind energy “should not be pursued at all costs,” as its ecological impact and consequences for coastal communities need to be taken into account.

Not enough attention had been given to the marine environment “both below and above sea level”, the report said.

There were also concerns over conflicts with fisheries and the inefficient use of marine space.

Speaking to locals in the NSW Hunter region about their concerns, Energy Minister Chris Bowen said consultation had already led to changes.

They include reducing the initial 2800 sq km zone to 1800 sq km and pushing the zone out from 10km off the shore to 30km.

About 3000 jobs are expected to be generated during construction and 1500 when they operate, powering 4.2 million homes.

The winning tenderers would need to prepare management plans and go through environmental approvals.

The government says there are many benefits to offshore wind.

“The thing about offshore wind … one, it’s very windy and it’s windy at different times to when it’s windy onshore, and it also tends to be windy in the evening when solar is turning down,” Mr Bowen said.

“So it’s very useful for stabilising our grid. It’s very energy-rich. One turn of one turbine powers as much energy as the solar panels on your roof do all day.

“Also, it’s jobs-rich. Because they turn very quickly, they need a lot more maintenance and … there’s a lot of local jobs created.”

Project proponents will need to deal with the issue of marine life management.

But the minister insists whales already co-exist with infrastructure such as oil and gas rigs and ships of various sizes.

“The ocean is to be shared, but we take the impact on marine life and whales very, very seriously.”

The government is consulting ahead of a decision on the Illawarra region declaration.

The minister told ABC Illawarra the zone would stretch from Wombarra to Gerringong with the potential to generate up to 4.2 gigawatts from offshore wind farms.

There would be 2500 jobs in construction and 1250 ongoing jobs.

With a federal election about 18 months away, there are risk for Labor if the issue is mishandled.

Labor MPs could face a backlash in seats along the NSW coast and Western Australia.

“I would say to everyone in the Hunter region, vote out your local Labor member – they’re not looking out for your community’s interest,” deputy opposition Sussan Ley said.

For Labor, gaining the confidence of communities won’t be a breeze.