15.8 C
Monday, June 5, 2023
HomeAustraliaThe untapped power of ocean winds - why New Zealand is looking...

The untapped power of ocean winds – why New Zealand is looking offshore for future renewable energy


The last synthesis report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes it clear that we need to prepare for increasing impacts while drastically reducing emissions at the same time.

A beacon of hope is the global growth of renewable energy, especially offshore wind with new installations nearly sixfold by 2021 compared to 2020.

Aotearoa New Zealand is one of the few regions – along with Norway, Iceland, Brazil and Canada – where a large share of electricity already comes from renewable sources. However, electricity does not equal total energy and New Zealand needs to consider a fundamental shift for other parts of its energy spectrum, including industrial heat.

There is no shortage of energy in New Zealand’s marine environment. A flow discussion document (call for public submissions by April 14) indicates that offshore wind is poised to build a bridgehead in a renewable energy market historically dominated by hydro and underpinned by coal.

The technical and environmental challenges of offshore wind energy are complex and expensive. Countries such as China, Denmark, Ireland and the UK are currently leading the way, but New Zealand’s location in the southwest Pacific means there is plenty of wind energy, both onshore and offshore.

Read more: Ireland has the wind and seas to become an offshore powerhouse

A shift in energy supply

Ara Akan energy innovation center on a mission to help New Zealand decarbonise recently held a forum on offshore renewable energy in New Plymouth, the country’s center for the natural gas sector.

Discussions focused on upcoming changes to the Resource Management Act, which will affect how development proceeds in the environment, and the recognition that new initiatives should align with Te Tiriti and Māori perspectives on how resources are used and who is benefits.

The discussion paper highlights two regions: the Taranaki Bight and the Strait of Foveaux. Both locations are relatively shallow and well suited for installations of current technology.

A NZ$4 billion project to build the land first offshore wind farm with 65 turbines off the coast of Taranaki could be completed within a decade, but the document also identifies some potential future regions that are deeper and more exposed to the Southern Ocean.

Potential effects of offshore wind farms

New Zealand is monitoring developments at a major Australian offshore wind farm off Gippsland, which aims to supply 20% of electricity for the state of Victoria.

But offshore wind generation poses environmental challenges, including the potential effects of large arrays of wind turbines on seabirds and marine mammals. The seas around Aotearoa are home to a higher proportion of seabirds than almost any other populated center, including many seabird species that breed nowhere else.

Read more: Australia poised to become a world leader in offshore wind, but potential risks to marine life remain poorly regulated

Other potential consequences extend to fisheries. But these depend on location, as ecosystems, fisheries and regulatory structures are unique to specific regions.

But one set of effects has received little attention so far. As tides push water past turbine masts, the resulting awakenings affect ocean motion. This effect can be seen from space.

a recent research identified how large arrays influence the biological functioning of coastal seas for UK offshore wind farms.

Sediment stirred in the wake of an offshore wind farm off the British coast.
NASA Earth Observatory, CC BY-ND

With the increasing impact of a changing climate, we need to ask more nuanced questions. What baseline should we consider when considering environmental impacts? Will the effects of a particular development exceed the expected effects of climate-driven extremes on that region?

Another compound question is how offshore renewable energy infrastructure will cope with a changing ocean. Climate projections are unequivocal about increasing future storms and stronger or more frequent tropical cyclones. These will be challenging for all infrastructure, not just maritime.

Offshore wind turbines in a storm
Storms are likely to become more intense as the climate warms.
Jason Brown/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images, CC BY-ND

Future thinking

A notable aspect of the current discussions in New Zealand is the use of the term “offshore renewables” rather than “offshore wind”. This will allow the focus to be shifted to a wider range of renewables, including next-generation renewables such as wave and tidal power.

While these approaches are niche compared to established offshore wind energy, they bring a diverse offering that will be vital in building a portfolio of renewable resources to move away from fossil fuels.

Read more: Offshore wind turbines could number 30,000 by 2030 – new ocean engineering ideas will be needed to install them

This evolution requires people, but New Zealand’s education sector is not producing enough graduates with a specialty in marine engineering. Beyond engineering, there are opportunities for data science, industrial services and infrastructure – and the opportunity to develop a research initiative to develop long-term capabilities and ideas.

The climate emergency has now arrived and the rapidly closing opportunity requires a shift in energy perspective if we are to give future generations the best chance for a livable and sustainable planet.

The author of what'snew2day.com is dedicated to keeping you up-to-date on the latest news and information.

Latest stories