Last Monday, Business Illawarra held a landmark event at the former Shinagawa Warehouse on BlueScope’s property at Port Kembla; the ‘Illawarra Clean Energy Summit and Expo’. Our intention was to hear from our leaders in government, and to bring together the great minds involved in our region’s renewable energy sector to share ideas with the wider business community.
The event was notable for many reasons – not least of which being the chill within the cavernous industrial space on one of the coldest Illawarra days in recent memory. But this did not dull the excitement, and as one Minister remarked to me, “forgive the pun, but you can really feel the energy in the room.”
Another remarkable element of the day was the sense of our region’s industrial past colliding with its future, which will be forged from high-value jobs, modern manufacturing, clean energy and the knowledge economy.
But most momentous was the announcement by Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Chris Bowen, that our region would likely be the next offshore wind zone in Australia, with consultation commencing immediately.
As we sit in the grip of an energy crisis that is crunching household budgets and putting cost pressures on practically every business, some may not entirely understand why this is so significant.
How can we, as a nation blessed with such great natural resources including endless sun and huge coal and gas reserves ever find ourselves in this predicament? And why is the solution to this problem involve establishing an entirely new industry for Australia?
We need to transition to cleaner forms of electricity generation for the benefit of the climate, and this is now a consensus position agreed at all levels of government. We have a national commitment to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050 set out in legislation, the Climate Change Act 2022, which sets out how greenhouse gas emissions must reduce over time.
While some may still have their doubts, to debate and delay a minute longer will just prolong the energy crisis.
The political paralysis on this issue has cost us dearly. On 1 July this year, the Australian Energy Regulator confirmed electricity prices would rise by a further 20-25 percent.
And due to our slow start, we now have a larger hill to climb than other economies. In 2022, 68 percent of electricity generation in Australia relied on fossil fuels. Meanwhile in the UK that figure is 43 percent, and New Zealand is keeping the lights on with only 14 percent reliance on fossil fuels (Source: Energy Institute Statistical Review of World Energy).
So we need the quickest and most efficient transition to renewables possible.
Already, decisions by thousands of Australians to take energy policy into their own hands has made rooftop solar the hero of our sad energy story, generating 20 gigawatts of power and accounting for 12 percent of total energy generation.
Nuclear power is unfeasible, despite its reliability and small carbon footprint, as it is banned in every state and territory in Australia, takes too long to build (around 10 years) and – well, we all know what happens when things go wrong.
Which brings us to offshore wind. Despite having some of the world’s breeziest areas just off the coast of eastern Australia, we are yet to reap a single benefit from that – as Chris Bowen lamented at our event. All this is about to change.
The chief advantages of offshore wind are that floating turbines can access the strongest and most consistent wind, and that this will diversify the generation capacity of solar when the sun doesn’t shine.
For the Illawarra, there are huge benefits for us stemming from local content (steel) as well as local manufacturing. There will be thousands of high-tech jobs in a future industry, with many more involved in servicing it.
These factors, added to the relative cost-effectiveness of offshore wind make it the number one solution to our energy transition over the coming decades. Through the coming consultation process we may see opposition arise based on visual impact (we’ll only be able to see the tips of the turbines out past the cargo ships on a clear day), potential impacts on marine and bird life, and on fishing, naval and other maritime activities (all can be resolved through careful planning and research, as it has in many other jurisdictions).
What’s important is that we, the sensible people in the room, throw our support behind this critical opportunity for our region, and do not allow minor concerns to delay or derail our transition to net zero.