Offshore wind farms: Blue Energy Futures Lab scientist agrees: ‘We need more research’

Genevieve Swart

While Queensland is not the federal government’s priority location for offshore wind farms, there are many proposed wind development projects in the Sunshine State. Here, Genevieve Swart takes a look at the contentious issue using a constructive journalism approach. 

There’s good news for locals united in calling for more research into the impacts of offshore wind farms. Not only do years of environmental investigation lie ahead but everyone can get involved.

In addition to drone tech and satellite tagging, citizen science is likely to play a big role in surveying whales and birds, so we can all look forward to heading to the nearest headland with a deckchair and a pair of binoculars, and declaring it a regional priority.

“It’s going to be a really exciting time for marine science,” said Associate Professor Michelle Voyer, a marine social scientist and Blue Energy Futures Lab (BEFL) spokesperson at the University of Wollongong.

“We are going to learn a lot in this time, whether wind farms proceed or not.

“The key point that we’ve made right from the beginning of this process is that the science needs to be done independently, as well as by individual proponents. Universities are crucial at this stage because you don’t want all the information coming from the developers.”

Universities also have access to a wider knowledge base and there’s lots to learn from other countries that have pioneered floating turbines, including the UK, Spain and Norway, as well as countries that will be developing large floating wind farms in the near future, such as the US, Japan and Korea.

Michelle also said that a lot of floating wind farms will be coming online in the next few years, which will allow us to be learning from other countries in real time – before any construction happens here. “China has around 50% of the offshore wind in the world but it is predominantly fixed bottom.”

Research required

For many people – journalists included – research today involves typing a question into Google and wading through a swamp of results. But primary research takes time and technology; talented people and specialist gear. Which means it is very expensive. Millions will be needed. Few conservation organisations have the resources, so scientists not attached to the wind industry will likely be found in government or university roles.

Regulatory body the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority has listed research priorities, including surveys of the sea floor, marine creatures and their habitat, but Michelle thinks more could be done.

NOPSEMA has published a Research Strategy.

“We need to begin now with research into the circular economy. So beginning to plan now for waste and decommissioning, reusing/recycling,” she said.

“We need to do a lot of work on understanding social values, social connections to place, the emotions and aspirations of local communities, and start this process of co-designing community benefit arrangements.

“There’s also a lot of work that needs to begin straightaway in understanding what the impacts are on other users, such as fisheries.”

As well as taking in the impacts on fishers, some of which are longtime sustainable family businesses providing local jobs, this research may assess coexistence opportunities.

“Offshore aquaculture development is something that’s been looked at quite a lot overseas, such as co-locating wind farms with fish aquaculture or shellfish aquaculture. Seaweed’s quite an exciting one as well.”

Challenges ahoy

There’s much to learn but the government has just one dedicated ocean research vessel, the RV Investigator. The Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water has not thus far commissioned the ship to work in any Australian wind zones and the ship is booked out until 2026/7, with a highly competitive application process.

“It’s not clear if this vessel will be involved in offshore wind research yet,” Michelle said.

Associate Professor Michelle Voyer. PHOTO: Anthony Warry

“It’s already very busy. It travels around Australia and down to Antarctica, and it maps the sea floor. It takes samples of the substrate as well as the water column. It uses radar to understand weather, and takes samples from all the way down to 6000m.”

Australia has six priority areas for offshore wind: Gippsland, Vic; Hunter, NSW; Southern Ocean, Vic; Illawarra, NSW, Bass Strait, Tas; and Indian Ocean off Bunbury, WA. So with competition for a research ship likely to be fierce, Michelle thinks new and emerging technology will play a part.

“There’s underwater, autonomous vessels that travel to the sea floor and film and map and take samples. There’s all kinds of really cool technology now.”

The funding options

A common question is: who will pay for the research?

“There is this community perception that industry funding can’t be trusted, so that can be problematic, because we have a very constrained funding environment,” Michelle said.

“Your options for funding are basically philanthropic, government or industry, or a combination.

“We need to have conversations around what is the funding source that people are most comfortable with, and is that feasible? What are the layers of transparency and accountability that ensure that, no matter where the funding comes from, the research is done independently and through rigorous scientific standards and processes.

“We all agree it needs to be done. So how do we make sure that it’s done in a way that’s trusted by communities? Even when it gives answers that maybe not everyone agrees with.”

Local scientists need funding

When the wind zone announcement comes, despite having a core team of 30 academics with “huge enthusiasm and amazing expertise”, BEFL is not currently funded to spring into research.

Scientists say more funding is needed to research the impacts of offshore wind farms. IMAGE supplied by BEFL

“I wanted to get started six months ago, but you need to be doing it well-resourced,” Michelle said. “If you go in half-baked, that’s when you’re going to lose people’s trust, and their trust in the result. We need to do this right.”

Other than a $20,000 internal Global Challenges grant to establish capabilities at UOW – an institution that employs more than 1000 academics – the BEFL group has had no funding. Research grants are scarce, applications may take a year.

“It’s important to note that, apart from a few small projects by different members of the group, we have not done any research yet on this topic,” Michelle said.

“We certainly hope to, but all that work that’s up on the FAQ page is published literature from all around the world. We were just trying to pull in information from the sources that are available in as balanced a way as we could. It also puts it in that context of what else is happening to our environments as a result of climate change. You need that context.”

Years of research are vital, she said. “We need to understand if there are any absolute showstoppers right through to what are the mitigation options.

“We’re looking at up to seven years between the starting gun going off with the issuing of feasibility licenses to things starting to be built in the water.”

This article first appeared in The Illawara Flame

Read more about the Blue Energy Futures Lab on their website.

Read more in the Illawarra Flame’s Common Ground series, focusing on the issues uniting us in the energy transition:

Responsible Future calls for independent environmental research

Surfers for Climate wants independent offshore wind research

Sea Shepherd Australia says Illawarra offshore research is ‘urgent’

IMAGE at top of story: Windmill art created at the Yes2Renewables family fun day in Wollongong in February. PHOTO: Melanie Russell

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