In the Hunter, all eyes are on the horizon

An offshore wind farm could give the Hunter a second life when its coal plant closes — but not everyone’s a fan.

Australians have a love affair with the ocean.

For some, it’s the last wilderness — unspoiled, and relatively untamed.

Standing at the shoreline of Nobby’s Beach in Newcastle, the horizon here could soon change.

Wind turbines, hundreds of metres tall, may end up scattered across these seas.

They could help transform Australia’s energy grid — providing enormous volumes of clean, reliable power.

And that task is increasingly urgent. Australia needs to more than double its renewable generation in less than six years to meet 2030 targets, and continue building rapidly from there.

Some people see wind farms as a threat — to a marine environment, a recovering humpback whale population, and a way of life.

Proponents say wilful misinformation has driven much of that opposition, and hope the argument will be won by the benefits a whole new clean energy industry could bring.

The coastal quirk that complicates offshore wind

Offshore wind turbines aren’t new. Thousands of turbines are spinning in places like the North Sea, and have been since the early 90s.

But they are new for Australia.

These turbines — like almost all currently operating around the world — are installed directly into the ocean floor.

But in many spots around Australia, the ocean is simply too deep for that to be feasible (often up to 500 metres deep).

So instead, in those places, they’re going to float.

This is fairly new technology. There are only a handful of floating turbines spinning anywhere on the planet.

Turbines 260 metres tall float on the surface, and are anchored to the ocean floor.

There are a few different parts of the country being looked at for possible offshore wind farms.

The most advanced proposals are off Gippsland in Victoria, and the Hunter in New South Wales.

There are also proposals off the shores of the Illawarra, western Victoria into South Australia, Tasmania, south-west WA, and southern and central Queensland.

The federal government estimates the Hunter wind zone alone could generate 5.8 gigawatts of power, enough for about four-and-a-half-million homes.

That’s almost double the capacity of the nearby Eraring power station, Australia’s largest coal-fired generator.

But in Port Stephens, where the lives and livelihoods of much of the community are tied to the ocean, some are resisting the idea.

The coastline provides both a way of life, and a means of making a living.

And to them the wind industry is a threat.

Frank Future has run whale and dolphin-watching tours in Port Stephens, just north of Newcastle, for nearly three decades.

He’s on these waters almost every day.

Summers see Frank take hundreds of tourists daily for dolphin-watching tours around Port Stephens, while winters are offshore looking for migrating humpbacks.

“We kicked off whale watching in ’95,” Frank said.

“And that filled the gap in the winter, because this place died in the winter.

“Tourism used to just be a summer thing here.”

Now, whale watching is one of the town’s biggest industries, as boats head out to catch the thousands of whales migrating down the coast from May to November.

It’s a love affair the town wears on its sleeve.

Frank’s an opponent of the offshore wind industry, worried what the turbines — and the cables anchoring them to the sea floor — might mean for the whales that are his livelihood.

He’s not alone either, with public rallies held, petitions lodged and opposition groups organising online.

“Yes To Wind Farms” graffiti seen on the road near One Mile Beach.(ABC News: Matt Roberts)

“No to coastal wind farms” sign seen in a front yard at Nelson Bay.(ABC News: Matt Roberts)

Local tourism operator Frank Future says the wind turbines will have an inevitable impact on his business. (ABC Newcastle: Romy Stephens)

Frank’s addressed some of those rallies, speaking of his fears for his industry.

“Although I’m a definite supporter of renewables, I have a real issue with this one,” he said.

It’s the uncertainty that troubles him, concerned how a new technology might interact with the marine life he and his community rely upon.

“The giant floating turbines are relatively new in the world, there are not that many case studies — certainly not anywhere around Australia.

“It’s in an area roughly known as the humpback highway, where we get an enormous amount of whales travelling through it both north and south. Not just whales, of course, dolphins and lots of seabirds too.

“So we have a lot of concerns for commercial fishing, recreational fishing, and for whales. The humpback population has become critical to tourism, my industry, and the whole of Port Stephens.”

An information war

Supporters of the offshore wind industry fear misinformation could delay, or even derail, wind farm projects.

Renewable technology has faced these challenges before, including when land-based turbines were first rolled out across the country.

There are a number of companies putting together detailed proposals for projects around the country, many at a fairly advanced stage.

Among them is Oceanex, which is pushing ahead with plans for projects off the Hunter, Illawarra, the far south coast of New South Wales and south-west WA.

Its Hunter proposal is for a 2,000-megawatt wind farm, comprising roughly 100 turbines.

Chief executive Andy Evans said he was not surprised by the pushback in places like Port Stephens.

And he was critical of what he labelled “misinformation” being pushed by some vocal opponents.

A sign opposing wind farms in Port Stephens.(Supplied)

But he was confident it could be countered, and communities would be convinced.

“I think it’s the newness of information which is just catching people by surprise,” he said.

“And we’re going through the normal process of having a number of things put on the table, a lot of reality coming out.”

Claims about offshore wind turbines harming or killing whales have often been found to be untrue.

The unusual deaths of 148 humpback whales off the east coast of the United States between 2016 and 2023 led to widespread claims the region’s new offshore wind industry was to blame.

It’s a claim that was seized upon by former US president Donald Trump as part of a broader campaign against clean energy projects.

NOAA Fisheries, a branch of the US Government’s environmental and science agency, found after a lengthy study that not a single whale death could be attributed to offshore wind.

40 per cent of the whales studied did however show evidence of some sort of other interaction with humans — like ship strike, or entanglement with fishing lines.

And they noted that warming oceans were changing how whales were moving through the ocean, including bringing them closer to shore than usual.

The government department responsible for the sector has been criticised for its slowness in combating misinformation.

While the federal government enthusiastically backs the industry, the area’s local MP Meryl Swanson said she was on the fence about installing turbines off Port Stephens.

It’s a sign of a broader challenge for the government, balancing a rapid embrace of renewables with the concerns of regional communities required to host them.

“I totally understand that people in my community are genuinely — and I think rightfully — concerned about the environment, the marine environment, and tourism,” she said.

Ms Swanson said there were clear benefits to bringing a whole new industry to town, particularly one offering the sorts of salaries that offshore industries offer.

And she was critical of the way her own government’s department managed the initial consultation process, saying too many people felt taken by surprise.

Meryl Swanson at Birubi Beach.(ABC News: Matt Roberts)

“Sadly there has been a lot of misinformation put out about it, I really do think that.

“And I think that also during the consultation period, we were let down by our own department in some ways, and I feel that quite strongly.

“The days of being able to say ‘well, we ran an ad and we dropped some flyers’, they’re gone.

“And if they don’t have the information there are other actors that will make it up.”

The proposed offshore wind zone off the Hunter stretches from the southern tip of Newcastle right to Port Stephens.

Ms Swanson argued given Newcastle’s long industrial history, perhaps the wind farms were best concentrated in that part of the region.

An opportunity for small communities

The Hunter has been one of the country’s most important coal regions and is home to the busiest coal port in the world.

As the globe shifts away from its reliance on coal for generating power, new industries and opportunities are increasingly going to matter for the region.

And for every business concerned about the wind farm, there are others interested in how they can get involved.

Bill Clifton runs Banlaw Murphy, a steel fabrication and fluid transfer business based in Newcastle.

He’s already been involved in talks about what the industry might mean for his business.

“If it does get up, it could be very good for manufacturing in the Hunter,” he said.

In fact, it could almost be too good.

Bill Clifton is concerned the region may struggle to support the volume of work the industry might bring with it.

“We want to be a part of it. The trouble is, it’s such a big project,” he said.

“There is going to be so much metal used in this project that finding contractors and suppliers and companies that can take such projects, of the magnitude they need, are going to be difficult.”

Oceanex estimates its project would employ 13,000 people during the construction phase, including 3,000 directly and 10,000 indirectly.

On top of that, there are 100 jobs during the approvals process, and 300 ongoing employees once it is up and operating at full capacity.

Bill Clifton argues the stakes are higher than just considering local industry, or managing community concerns.

“There’s a lot of people that are concerned, but we’ve got to keep the lights on too,” he said.

“I don’t think it matters where this project goes, there’s going to be some opposition.”

34,000 kilometres of potential

Australia is pursuing a target of reaching 82 per cent renewables in its energy grid by 2030.

Many coal-fired power stations are set to close earlier than had been expected only a few years ago, including Australia’s largest plant in the Hunter.

Decisions around how, when and where an offshore wind industry is built might not be determined on the wants and wishes of coastal residents, or even the need for new industries in many regions.

The sheer demand for new, clean power to both keep Australia’s energy grid running, and push the country towards net zero, might be the most influential factor.

With 34,000 kilometres of coastline and most of the country living near it, experts say Australia should lead the world in wind.

And with that vast, windy coastline — the promise of offshore power is likely too great to ignore.


Reporter: Tom Lowrey

Photography: Matt Roberts

Illustrations: Emma Machan

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