Wed. May 18th, 2022

As Ron Ipsen sees it, Latrobe Valley is Victoria’s beating heart.

From here, a jumble of transmission lines snakes 145 km west to Melbourne and beyond, branching out like a vascular system across the landscape.

Although Ipsen has long since retired, the 64-year-old third-generation powerhouse worker still lives across the lake from the Yallourn “W” plant, which he spent the best years of his working life keeping alive.

“They’re just massive,” Ipsen says. “A 15-story fireball inside a boiler. They are magnificent machines. We will not see them as them again. ”

Although he respects the technical ingenuity and misses the work, Ipsen – a veteran in the fight against the state government over the Hazelwood mine fire – says that the good life coal that was once offered is gone and that there is a new future to be gained.

“The product we have always produced is energy. Whether it is selling coal or over a cable to Singapore, ”says Ipsen. “We’re not changing what we sell, we’re just changing the way we send it and the jobs associated with it.”

Among the long list of photovoltaic plants and onshore wind turbine projects planned for the region, the most compelling is the proposed offshore wind farm, which Ipsen says offers a “massive” potential for a whole new industry.

Since 2019, the International Energy Agency has identified offshore wind as one of the three major new sources of electricity generation along with photovoltaic systems and onshore wind.

Globally, 200GW of new capacity is planned online in 2030. Among the world leaders are the United States and China – China alone accounted for half of the installed capacity in 2020.

This is just a fraction of what Australia could produce. With 60,000 km of coastline and some of the best resources in the world — wind speeds in the Bass Sound reaching 12 meters per second — Australia seems to be made for wind projects on an industrial scale.

‘Economic benefits for a generation’

An analysis from the Blue Economy Cooperative Research Center, published in July, found that Australia had the potential to generate 2,000 GW of offshore wind in areas less than 100 km from existing transformer stations.

Jeff Colgan, political scientist and director of the Climate Solutions Lab at the Watson Institute for Public and International Affairs at Brown University, says Australia has a lot to gain.

“Offshore wind is going to be a big business globally as the political struggles to locate onshore wind farms intensify,” Colgan said. “If Australia is positioning well on offshore wind now, it could reap economic benefits for the workforce for at least a generation.”

But while oil production hubs like Aberdeen in Scotland have taken advantage of offshore wind to reinvent themselves as renewable energy centers, Australia has so far been slow to move.

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When the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) published its 2020 integrated system plan, a roadmap for road network planning, updated every two years, offshore wind did not assess anything.

In the 18 months since the report, however, 10 new projects have been announced, four of which are in New South Wales, one in Victoria and another on the northwest coast of Tasmania – part of AEMO’s future planning.

The total capacity of these 10 projects offers more than 25 GW of energy.

The earliest and most developed is Star of the South, a proposed 2.2 GW offshore wind farm off the coast of Victoria in Bassundet.

So far, 200 wind turbines are planned for an area of ​​496 square kilometers, where the energy is generated transferred on land by cable to a transformer station. $ 10 billion. The project will be one of the largest offshore wind farms in the world, able to meet almost 20% of Victoria’s current energy needs, with the potential to add more turbines in the future.

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The company’s CEO, Casper Frost Thorhauge – who started his working life as an engineer in a thermal coal plant – says Australia is hugely attractive for offshore wind development.

“Most [existing power plants in Australia] closes in after the end of their technical life, which creates the opportunity for new electricity production, ”says Thorhauge. “And then the basics are there: good sea, good net and good wind.”

With several other projects now in different stages of planning, the business case for establishing local manufacturing in the supply chain is stronger.

“As a project, it has always been difficult for us to attract the global supply chain and for them to establish themselves here in Australia,” he says. “After proposing several projects, it becomes an industry.”

‘Incomprehensibly late first step’

Tom Quinn, police chief for Beyond Zero Emissions, says a lucky fate and geography means offshore wind can deliver more than zero-emission power generation.

“Our industrial regions are right next to some of the richest wind regions in the world,” says Quinn. “To make the big capital investments required to overhaul our existing industry like steel furnaces and the like, it’s much easier if you have that power supply.”

As demand grows over the next decade for products such as green steel, hydrogen, aluminum and a host of other minerals needed to build cars, batteries and other components, he says there is “big money” to be made. – and a lot of work is done.

A file photo of the Walney Extension offshore wind farm off the coast of Blackpool, UK
A wind farm off the coast of Blackpool, UK. Australian supporters say there is ‘big money’ to be made from offshore wind – and a lot of work needs to be done. Photo: Phil Noble / Reuters

The National Assistant Secretary for the Electric Trades Union, Michael Wright, says coal, oil and gas workers already have the skills needed to run these operations.

“The fact that these projects are so close to the areas that are going to take it in the teeth from this transition means that there is a really good opportunity for workers to move on to good jobs,” Wright says.

“You don’t get that with solar farms. They are short-term constructions. There’s an old joke: it just takes two security guards and an Alsace to drive them. ”

However, it has proved difficult to get people on board. Opposition in some trade unions to renewable energy jobs stems largely from bitter experience. In some cases, promised jobs never showed up, and those who did came with poor pay and terms.

The hope is that things will be different by collaborating with offshore wind with green manufacturing – although until recently it has not been able to take the first steps as such projects have been illegal.

In early September, the federal government sought to address this by introducing the Offshore Electric Infrastructure Bill, which would make licenses available for feasibility studies and commercial development.

Those looking for a clear set of guide rails for a potentially lucrative new industry were disappointed. Despite many years of lobbying, very little in the bill is binding, as the word “may” appears throughout the text 406 times to describe ministerial obligations or procedural requirements.

In its current form, the bill does not contain clear guidance on environmental regulations, requirements for negotiations with native property owners, a clear safety regime for workers or marine spatial planning requirements.

Dr Tina Soliman Hunter, professor of energy and resource law at Macquarie University Law School, says she has concerns about this “legislate first, change later” approach.

“The bill is extremely weak and is based on rules that do not exist and must never be written, and essentially places a single bet on a two-horse race. [between fossil fuels and offshore wind], ”Says Hunter.

Since the bill needs to be updated after it is passed, Hunter says the rules need to be written on the fly, creating uncertainty for investors when things change, or leaving the government open to influence.

But those who have worked to get the green light for the industry – environmental groups, NGOs, trade unions, industry figures and think tanks – say they support the bill as a critical first step.

“It’s an incomprehensibly late first step for what’s a really important industry,” Wright says. “There is no expectation that this is the final version of the legislation, but if the industry does not understand this, there is no reason to continue investing.

“Why bother starting if it’s not legal?”

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