After opposition from Kiama residents pushed South Pacific's plan north, an information session at Thirroul kicked off a range of views on the project itself and the wider value of offshore wind farms as renewable energy technology.
With claims and opinions circling within community spaces, both online and offline, the Illawarra Mercury spoke with independent experts to separate truth from fiction and bust the emerging myths that surround offshore wind farms.
The experts the Mercury consulted for this article are:
Professor Britta Biene, a professor at the Centre for Offshore Foundations within the University of Western Australia's Oceans Graduate School. Dr Beine is a civil engineer with a specialisation in offshore geotechnical engineering and whose research informs global standards for offshore foundations, including for offshore wind turbines.
Professor Ty Christopher, the director of the Energy Futures Network within the Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences at the University of Wollongong. Mr Christopher is an electrical engineer with decades of experience in the deployment and planning of energy networks.
When will the project occur?
The experts consulted for this article stressed that it is very much early days when it comes to the regulatory and approvals process for the offshore wind farms proposed for the Illawarra coast.
The federal government is yet to declare the Pacific Ocean region off the Illawarra as suitable for offshore wind and each project will have to go through multiple levels of Commonwealth and state planning and environmental approvals before electricity starts flowing.
"Each of these projects is in the very earliest of developmental phases," Mr Christopher said.
At the current timeframe, construction is not forecast to begin before 2028 and electricity will flow around 2030, provided all planning approval gateways are passed.
The most advanced offshore wind project in Australia, Star of the South, has been exploring the seabed off the coast of Gippsland Victoria since 2019, the results of which will be released in 2024, ahead of an expected construction completion date in 2028.
What are the details?
The two most advanced projects for the Illawarra coast are the South Pacific Offshore Wind Project and Illawarra Offshore Wind, both of which propose to use floating foundation wind turbine technology that are tethered to the seafloor with anchors, rather than being fixed in the seabed.
The South Pacific Offshore Wind Project is being developed by BlueFloat Energy, a Spanish offshore wind developer backed by US renewables investment firm 547 Energy.
The project involves 105 floating wind turbines located 14-30 kilometres off the coast between Shellharbour and Clifton.
The turbines would reach about 200 metres in height. The project will provide 1.6 gigawatts of electricity to the grid, equivalent to the power consumed by 825,000 homes.
The Illawarra Offshore Wind project is being developed by Norwegian energy company Equinor in partnership with Australian offshore wind firm Oceanex.
Equinor has large oil and gas projects in the North Sea as well as investments in renewable energy, including the Hywind Scotland floating offshore wind farm off the coast of Peterhead.
Oceanex is planning offshore wind projects near Newcastle, the Illawarra, Eden and New Zealand and the company's founders were also involved in the Victorian Star of the Sea project.
Illawarra Offshore Wind has not yet specified the number of turbines it will involve, but these will be located more than 20 kilometres offshore and provide 2000 megawatts, enough to power over one million homes.
How will the towers impact the swell?
Being off the coast of numerous surf breaks which provide recreation for locals and attractions for tourists, the placement of wind turbines inevitably draws questions on how this will affect the swell rolling into beaches and points. Both experts said the turbines would have little, if any, effect on swell.
"The offshore wind turbines will be floating," Mr Christopher said. "And what that means is their impact on swell will be minimal to nothing, because they will ride up and down with the swells that are there."
Rather than forming an impediment to swell and wave energy, the turbines will be designed to let this energy pass through and will be spaced around 1.5 kilometres apart.
"You would be looking for a floating offshore wind farm at quite large spacings between individual turbines," Dr Biene said. "The offshore wind turbines are not there to take out any significant energy out of the wave environment, so the impact of a floating offshore wind farm on [swell] will not be significant in any way.
"I don't think there will be any significant impact."
Will the marine environment be affected?
The proposed wind farms have also raised questions about what impact this will have on the marine environment.
Dr Biene said the best practice for environmental approvals in overseas project has been to ensure that the wind farms do no harm and in some cases improve the marine environment.
"European offshore wind farms now have to demonstrate increased biodiversity through the project,' Dr Biene said.
This occurs through a reef effect where the floating foundations provide a sanctuary for fish and other aquatic species.
Dr Biene also said the environmental assessment process provided an opportunity to learn more about the marine environment as the area is largely inaccessible and often understudied.
Above the water level, the risk of birds striking and being injured by turbine blades is a concern for both offshore and onshore wind turbines. However a recent study of bird behaviour near offshore wind turbines in the Aberdeen bay found no collisions in two years of monitoring.
The study, conducted by researchers on behalf of Swedish energy giant Vattenfall, used cameras and radar to record the movement of species including herring gulls, gannets, kittiwakes and great black-backed gulls.
What about whales?
One area that would need to be looked at closely is how whales would navigate through the wind farms. Mr Christopher said it was the first project that he was aware of that was situated in a whale migration route, and that this would need to be looked at closely during the environmental approval process.
"The impact on whales and whale migration is something that is an area that requires some very serious and what will probably be leading edge research to be undertaken."
Other authorities have said there would be little, if any impact on whales from offshore wind farms.
The US authority which manages marine life found no links between noise from wind farms and whale deaths. Instead, recent whale deaths observed in New York and New Jersey were found to be the result of being hit by ships or getting caught in fishing gear.
Former Australian Threatened Species Commissioner Professor Gregory Andrews told the Central Coast Community News that climate change was the number one threat to whales and that wind farms would provide security for whales as a renewable energy source.
Can you see the turbines?
After the relocation of the South Pacific Offshore Wind Farm Project, country manager Nick Sankey said residents' concerns about their views of the ocean horizon were a factor in the move north.
Both experts said to a certain extent the impact on views will come down to individuals' personal preferences and aesthetics, however the requirement to be a significant way offshore to pick up the stronger winds would reduce the visual impact, Dr Beine said.
"Usually [the turbines] would be 15 to 20 kilometres offshore and anything further than 20 kilometres would be difficult to see, and also the white colour with the light blue sky, it does blend in," she said.
"I would not expect them to be particularly obtrusive."
Mr Christopher said the higher up the escarpment, the easier it would be to see the turbines, but that the Illawarra already was used to large objects on the horizon.
"[The turbines] will be much harder to see than the ships we see up and down the coast on a regular basis at the moment."
How will power get to the grid?
Underwater cables will carry the electricity produced by the turbines to a floating substation, before a high voltage export cable links the farm to the land-based grid. The projects indicate that the power would be fed into the grid via the Dapto switchyard, where there is the potential to use existing transmission infrastructure.
With transmission infrastructure one of the key impediments to the roll-out of renewable energy elsewhere in the state, Mr Christopher said connections would need to be worked out early by the project and utilities which currently own the poles and wires.
"In the renewable energy zones across NSW, much of the concern is about securing transmission line routes, not building the transmission lines, that's the hold up," he said.
"I don't think anybody has got a definitive view on where they're going to run those transmission lines at the moment, but it's a big issue that will need to be solved."
Will electromagnetic radiation be an issue?
As the power pulses through from offshore wind turbines to the electricity grid, which involves some low-level electromagnetic radiation. This radiation is much lower than that associated with mobile phones or microwave ovens and reduces the further away one gets from a transmission line.
"If you lived in a house, right on the edge of an easement with the highest capacity, electricity lines running through that easement, over the back fence of your home, inside your home, you're exposed to a greater degree of electromagnetic radiation from your hairdryer, electric blanket, mobile phone and microwave oven than you ever are from the transmission lines," Mr Christopher said.
How long do the turbines last and can they be recycled?
After the switch is turned on in the early 2030s, the wind farms will have a lifecycle of between 25 and 30 years, subject to ongoing maintenance. Dr Biene said that the first generation of wind farms off the coast of Denmark are just now reaching the end of their life.
"As the offshore wind industry started up, not everything was fully recyclable, but, for example, the Kaskasi project recently made use of 97 per cent recyclable blades."
Previously, the composite materials needed to provide the strength required for the blade provided a challenge for recycling the entire turbine.
"Part of the approvals process will be a detailed decommissioning plan as well," Dr Biene said. "There is no risk that it will just be abandoned."