Controversial offshore wind zone gets green light despite community backlash

Paul Eyers
By Paul Eyers
9 Min Read

A new wind zone off the Illawarra coast has been given the go-ahead following large-scale community backlash. 

The federal government approved the project, which is only the fourth of its kind nationwide, despite facing an initial fightback from locals concerned about the wind zone’s impact on the environment and residential views. 

Set to be situated just 20km off the Wollongong coast, the wind zone will span just over 1000 square km parallel from Stanwell Park to Kiami and is set to produce close to 3 GW in clean energy, enough to power 1.8 million homes. 

It will include 300 wind turbines standing at 260 meters tall.

That’s a significant change from the project’s initial proposal, which was nearly 50 per cent larger at 1461 sq km, located 10km closer to shore and with an additional 1.2 GW production capacity. 

Despite the decrease, the renewable energy zone will form a massive boost to Australia’s net zero by 2050 carbon goals, providing a reliable, clean energy substitute to the nation’s coal-fired power stations, 90 per cent of which are scheduled to shut down by 2035

The project has sparked a significant backlash in ‘the Gong’, with locals worried the turbines will be too much of an eyesore, while environmental groups are concerned about the project’s impact on whale migration routes. 

wind zone gong
An artist’s impression of how the wind zone will look from Illawarra beaches on a clear day.

Federal Energy Minister Chris Bowen announced the approval in Wollongong on Saturday, where he told Build-it the re-zoning had alleviated much of the community concerns, including making the turbines “less visible”.

“By moving the zone to 20 kilometres away, that achieves that outcome. On most days, you won’t see the wind turbines,” he said.

“Also, we have taken into account environmental concerns and shipping issues to ensure a balanced proposal.”

Community anger remains despite go-ahead

Protests of more than 1000 people have occurred during the community consultation process, with anti-wind zone campaigners claiming the project would destroy the oceans and the region’s iconic beach views.

“On a sunny day, you’ll still be able to see them just as clearly as their initially proposed location,” Wollongong resident Gabrielle Calluthers told Build-it.  

“It’s going to completely ruin the look of our coastline for miles as well impacting our birds and marine wildlife.” 

Wollongong resident Gabrielle Calluthers told Build-it the wind turbines would ruin the Illawarra’s iconic beach views.

Illawarra-based lobster fisherman Mark Horne campaigned to have the project stopped, saying he is devastated by its approval, which will destroy the region’s sustainable fishing and tourism industry. 

“It’s a spin-off effect on multiple businesses in the Illawarra,” he said.

“You move the windfarms to 20km, so you may still see the tips of them, but that’s not the real issue; the real issue is the environmental damage.”

“It’s an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen… it’s not going to do what people want to make our environment safe and sustainable to pass it on to generations to come.” 

Climate activists call out “misinformation” campaign

However, the project approval has received significant support from climate campaign groups and other environmentalists in the community.

Environmental justice organisation Friends of the Earth renewable energy spokesperson Pat Simons said the approval was good news for action on climate change and job creation.

“Offshore wind represents a massive opportunity to take action on climate change while creating thousands of new jobs,” he said. 

Pat Simons

“As we all experience the worsening impacts of climate change from severe floods, storms and fires fuelled by burning fossil fuels, offshore wind has a critical role to play in cutting greenhouse gas emissions and providing a new source of electricity.” 

Illawarra resident Darryl Best said the power supplied by the windfarms would provide local businesses with clean energy sources as the nation stepped away from fossil fuels.

‘’Wind farms, installed using best practice environmental impact studies, as part of the energy transition, are vital for the people and businesses of the Illawarra region,” he said.

“We have a proud history of being at the forefront of the industry, and this is the perfect opportunity to ensure clean energy is supplied to Bluescope and other industries as the country and the world transition away from fossil fuels.”

Meanwhile, Good for the Gong volunteer Sophia Walter says most residents were in favour of the wind zone, provided the proper environmental protective measures are taken.

“We’ve been out there at market stalls, outside shops and talking to the community, and I can tell you – most people in the Illawarra are happy to see the offshore wind project going ahead so long as it’s done right,” she explained. 

Wind zone sparks union support

The Electrical Trades Union of Australia (ETU) and Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) applaud further progress toward the development of Australia’s offshore renewable energy with today’s announcement the Albanese Government has declared an offshore wind zone in the Pacific Ocean off the Illawarra in New South Wales. 

The Electrical Trades (ETU) and the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) have also backed the offshore energy project after it was announced the project would create 2500 jobs during construction and an additional 1,250 long-term roles.

“This is a win for workers, industry and our future,” said ETU National Secretary Michael Wright. 

“No nation is better placed than Australia to turbocharge its economy with abundant, cheap emission-free electricity.”

“We need to maximise the opportunity for local businesses, local manufacturing, and local steel, and we need this work done by Australian workers in well-paid union jobs right across the renewable energy sector.”

MUA Assistant National Secretary Thomas Mayo says the construction would build thousands of rewarding jobs for maritime industry professionals.

“The declaration of this offshore wind zone is another step to building an Australian offshore wind industry that will deliver and sustain many thousands of long-term and rewarding jobs for maritime workers,” he said.

“Dockworkers and seafarers are ready to use their skills handling steel and building big offshore oil and gas projects to deliver offshore renewable energy for the Illawarra.”

Environmental studies are now required.

The Federal government’s approval doesn’t mean construction will begin on the project any time soon, with multiple environmental approvals needed prior to commencement. 

However, it does allow developers to enter what is known as a ‘feasibility stage’ where they can undertake detailed environmental and management planning, which will need approval under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. 

During the feasibility licence stage, developers must provide detailed environmental assessments and engage in further consultation, including how the project will coexist with current shipping, tourism and fishing industries.

Feasibility licence applications for the wind zone opened yesterday and will close on Thursday, August 15. 

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Paul Eyers has worked as a journalist for a range of media publishers including News Corp and Network Ten. He has also worked outside of Australia, including time spent with ABS-CBN in the Philippines. Stepping away from the media, Paul spent five years sharpening his tools in construction - building his skill set and expertise within the trade industry. His diverse experiences and unique journey have equipped him with an insider view of Australia’s construction game to dig deep into the big stories.