Recently unveiled plans for an offshore wind farm in the Australian state of Victoria face a major hurdle: onshore projects are far, far cheaper.
“Right now, in Australia it’s a very competitive price market,” said Robert Liew, senior analyst for Asia-Pacific at MAKE Consulting, which is owned by GTM’s parent company Wood Mackenzie. “The price of onshore wind is even more competitive than, say, a new-build coal project.”
Onshore projects are delivering power at between USD $0.45 and $0.56 per megawatt-hour, he said. Offshore wind in Australia might struggle to come in at twice that level.
In Europe, offshore wind is getting close to Australia’s onshore price range because countries such as Germany and the U.K. have spent decades building an industry to support their projects. Europe also boasts several major offshore wind turbine manufacturers.
But the lack of native turbine-makers or an established supply chain makes it hard for offshore generation to come anywhere close to the price of onshore projects in Australia.
Nevertheless, Victoria’s government this month welcomed a proposal from Offshore Energy, a little known developer, to carry out a feasibility study for a 250-turbine project between 10 and 25 kilometers off the coast of Gippsland, in the southeast of the state.
“A new renewable power generator of this size would drive down electricity prices, and we’ll support offshore energy wherever we can to progress this study,” said Victoria’s Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change, Lily D’Ambrosio, in a press release.
If the AUD $8 billion (USD $6 billion) project goes ahead, “It is hoped the wind farm could be generating power in time to contribute to the Labor Government’s Renewable Energy Target of 40 percent by 2025,” the press note said.
It’s a big "if," though.
Jack-up barges, which are just one vital element of the offshore wind supply chain, can cost $165,000 a day. There are almost certainly none in Australia, nor, quite possibly, in the whole of the southern hemisphere.
If a barge has to be chartered all the way from Europe, along with all the other vessels needed for construction, support, cable-laying and more, and the turbines and other components also have to be shipped around the world, “It’s going to be difficult to get the cost down,” said Liew.
Onshore wind, in contrast, is cheap and easy. The average size of onshore wind farms in Australia is 130 megawatts, and the projects have capacity factors of between 35 percent to 45 percent.
Add in the low cost of plots in Australia’s vast open landscape, and the country emerges as one of the best places on the planet to build onshore wind farms. “Whether offshore can offer better value is the million-dollar question,” Liew commented.
And it’s not just costs that could pose a problem for offshore wind in Australia.
According to Robert Bates, assistant underwriter at the renewable energy insurer GCube, “Earthquakes and cyclones, while infrequent in Australia, are natural-catastrophe-type risks that developers in Australia offshore wind may have to contend with.”
The seabed surrounding Australia is “diverse and complex,” he said. “Moreover, different soil types require different foundation types. Detailed geotechnical studies will be crucial in determining what will be best for each site.”
Finally, given that there are more than 1,100 offshore oil and gas platforms around the country, “safely circumnavigating existing marine infrastructure is especially challenging.”
Australia does not appear likely to gain an industrial advantage by planting turbines off Gippsland. It has no original equipment manufacturers that would benefit, or nearby markets to exploit.
That said, it is too early to completely write off the prospect of Australian offshore wind. Liew said he spoke to developers “curious” about investigating offshore projects in the country.
Australia also has a history of welcoming foreign companies to build infrastructure projects, he said. And with high electricity prices, there might be an opportunity to introduce technologies that would not be viable elsewhere.
Finally, the timeframe for the Gippsland project may leave enough room for further cost reductions. Beyond 2020, a low-cost offshore supply chain might be accessible from Asian markets such as Japan or South Korea.
Turbines, meanwhile, might be supplied by firms such as Siemens, Vestas or Senvion, which already have a significant presence in the Australian onshore market.
“I wouldn’t rule it out,” said Liew. “Maybe the conditions [in Gippsland] are just perfect. But it’s a real tough sell.”