Offshore windfarm zone off Illawarra coast given green light in bid to ‘power Australia’s clean energy future’

<span>An offshore windfarm zone has been approved for an area 20km off the coast of the Illawarra region south of Sydney.</span><span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
An offshore windfarm zone has been approved for an area 20km off the coast of the Illawarra region south of Sydney.Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

The federal government has given the green light to an offshore windfarm zone south of Sydney, making it Australia’s fourth such zone to be declared.

Announcing the project in the Illawarra on Saturday, the climate change and energy minister, Chris Bowen, said the move would bring thousands of new jobs and help “power Australia’s clean energy future”.

The zone will be 20km from the coast and exclude areas significant for the little penguin and for southern right whale migration.

It will cover an offshore area of 1,022 sq km – a one-third reduction from the original proposal – and has the potential to generate 2.9GW, or enough power for 1.8m homes.

“The Illawarra has been an engine room of the Australian economy for generations, and now it’s ready to power Australia’s clean energy future,” Bowen said.

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“Declaring this offshore wind zone brings the Illawarra a step closer to becoming a major provider of the building blocks of the net zero transformation – green power, green hydrogen and green steel – along with thousands of new jobs.”

Since last year, the proposal for a windfarm zone in the Illawarra and the declaration of a zone in New South Wales’s Hunter region has drawn fierce opposition, with some online groups sharing factually incorrect information about the windfarms.

The Coalition has fanned opposition to the project, despite introducing legislation for the development of an offshore wind industry while in government.

The federal Labor MP for Whitlam, Stephen Jones, said the declaration showed the government’s commitment to supporting local jobs and delivering cheaper and more reliable energy for Illawarra businesses and households.

“We want Australia to be a global renewable energy superpower and regions such as the Illawarra have an important role to play in our nation’s energy transformation,” he said.

The zone does not guarantee an offshore windfarm will go ahead, but is the first of five regulatory stages. The stages will include project-specific feasibility and commercial licences and an environmental assessment under national conservation laws.

If an offshore windfarm does go ahead, the turbines could be up to 268 metres high. The government has said the size, arrangement and number of turbines will be determined after the prospective developer undertakes studies.

The government views creating an offshore windfarm industry in Australia as key to helping the country replace ageing coal-fired power plants, and reaching its plan for the energy grid to be made up of 82% of renewable energy by the end of the decade.

The federal Labor MP for Cunningham, Alison Byrnes, said she was pleased the zone had been amended to start further from the coast and exclude significant environmental areas.

“[It’s a] sensible compromise that reflects the majority of community opinion while helping to achieve our shared goals of more renewable energy, more jobs and fewer emissions,” she said.

“There is now an extensive process of studies and approvals that will be required but this is a positive step for a region that wants to secure its industrial future and power it using clean energy.”

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Many welcomed the development on Saturday.

The Climate Council policy and advocacy head, Jennifer Rayner, said the Illawarra would continue to thrive for generations with affordable and clean energy being produced in the region.

“Offshore wind will be an important part of Australia’s clean energy grid because it provides reliable, steady renewable energy right around the clock,” Rayner said.

“This is one of the important ways we’ll power Australia as our ageing and unreliable coal-fired generators close.

“The federal and state governments need to work together to rapidly break through roadblocks that are holding back the delivery of onshore wind projects already supported by communities and investors.”

The University of Wollongong Energy Futures Network director, Ty Christopher, hailed the offshore wind project as a positive step for the region.

“By working together as a community, sharing our concerns for the environment to codesign a clean energy future for the region, we have the ability to deliver positive outcomes for our oceans, our communities and our local economy,” he said.

– with Australian Associated Press