Wind farm operators BlueFloat has withdrawn its referral to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act for 105 turbines off the Illawarra coast.
Just days after its referral for the South Pacific Offshore Wind project opened for public comment BlueFloat advised it had withdrawn it submission.
BlueFloat country manager Nick Sankey said the company was reconsidering the timing of the referral, which was launched on Friday, November 3.
Federal Energy and Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen is yet to formally declare the Illawarra offshore wind zone, and public consultation on the zone continues until November 15.
Speaking to ABC radio this morning, Mr Bowen said the EPBC process and the offshore wind zone were two separate processes, but he understood why there could be confusion in the community.
"Where they're proposing may or may not be inside the zone that I eventually declare. If it's not, sorry, bad luck to them. They've wasted their money."
Anti wind farm group the Coalition Against Offshore Wind said it was appalled BlueFloat had gone ahead with the environmental approvals process, prior to consultation concluding on the zone.
"Lodgement is inappropriate while the broader consultation period is still open," a spokesperson said.
"The time for community comment is unacceptably short given that the application includes lengthy documents."
Pro-wind farm community group Good for the Gong said it was disappointed that BlueFloat had jumped the gun, submitting the EPBC referral prior to the declaration of the zone.
"We are disappointed that BlueFloat energy has decided to jump the starting gun and make a referral submission to the EBPC prior to the Renewable Energy Zone being approved," spokesperson and co-founder Courtney Venaglia said.
"We strongly believe that this is counterproductive to the cause of supporters of renewable transition in the Illawarra, and that submitting plans and proposals at such an early stage undermines the necessary community consultation processes."
One of the companies hoping to build an offshore wind farm off the coast of the Illawarra has revealed details of its plan, including power cables traversing Lake Illawarra.
The Federal Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water has published reams of documentation on the South Pacific Offshore Wind Project, as part of the referral process under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.
Due to the proposed wind farm's impact on nationally significant animals, plants, habitats and places, the project needs to be referred to the Australian government for consideration as to whether the project will need to be assessed under the EPBC Act.
In this case BlueFloat, the developer of the South Pacific Offshore Wind Project, has self-referred its project to the Department, part of which includes a 10 day period where the public can make comments on the referral of the project.
That period began on Friday, November 3 and will run until November 17. After this, the federal environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, will decide whether the proposal needs to be assessed under federal environmental legislation.
BlueFloat Energy country manager Nick Sankey said he expected this to be the case.
"Our expectation is that the project will be a controlled action," he said.
As part of the referral, hundreds of pages of studies and reports set out the scale of the project. This includes the wind farm itself, as well as onshore infrastructure to connect the turbines to the grid.
The wind farm proposal includes 105 wind turbines located 14 to 30 kilometres off the coast, between Shellharbour and Clifton and covers an area of 359 square kilometres. The turbines would be at maximum over 300 metres tall, from blade tip to floating platform.
The turbines would generate up to 1.6 gigawatts, enough to power about one and a half million homes.
In between the turbines would be three floating substations and power would be fed back into the grid via undersea cables.
BlueFloat proposes three options for how these cables would come ashore. The first would travel between Five Islands and connect to the grid in Port Kembla.
The second option would go to the south of Five Islands, cross the Windang peninsula and then join existing energy infrastructure at Tallawarra before connecting to the Yallah substation.
The third option takes a different route to the Yallah power station, coming ashore at Killalea before heading north-west to Yallah.
Mr Sankey said the company was yet to determine whether the land-based cables would be above ground or buried underneath.
"That's currently under investigation," he said. "It depends if we can get close to an existing overhead transmission corridor, then it probably makes sense to go overhead, but we're looking at both underground and overhead, fully noting that communities' views on more overhead lines aren't particularly favourable."
The documents also outline the project's potential to "significantly" impact environments of national importance. These include threatened and migratory species such as albatrosses, parrots, grey nurse sharks, turtles and whales, including southern right whales and humpback whales.
The project also has the potential to impact protected areas, such as the Five Islands Nature Reserve and the Bushrangers Bay Aquatic Reserve.
To reduce any impacts, the project proposes to do additional studies to understand the ecological communities, as well as locate land-based infrastructure on previously cleared land.
At sea, the developers propose further assessments to determine what species are at risk and inform changes to the design to reduce impacts.
Consultation remains open on the Illawarra offshore wind zone until November 15. The zone covers 1461 square kilometres of ocean between Gerringong and Clifton.
Mr Sankey said BlueFloat were submitting their referral ahead of any final declaration of a zone to enable investigations in the subsequent feasibility licence stage to proceed immediately, if the company is granted a licence.
"This is work that you can do without a feasibility licence, but it does take some time," he said. "We will be in a much better position to be able to move forward quickly with the development than do this work starting from licence award."
In any event, Mr Sankey said, there would be many more studies and consultation to come.
"This is not the final time that people get to have a say on the environmental impact of this project. We need to investigate more. We've done a very preliminary analysis, but we need to undertake detailed studies."
Alison Byrnes' statement on BlueFloat:
Like many in our community, I was shocked to see the EPBC referral by BlueFloat Energy yesterday (November 6, 2023). After media reports of this referral, I received feedback from members of our community.
The sentiment expressed by many members of our community is that the referral was ill-timed, confusing and there was not enough time for our community to properly consider the proposal.
After contacting both Minister Plibersek and Minister Bowen's offices yesterday to find out more about the process, I then contacted BlueFloat Energy to discuss community concerns.
I spoke to BlueFloat's Country Manager - Australia, Nick Sankey, this morning and relayed the concerns that had been put to me by the community.
I shared the community's concerns that this referral had been made before the Minister for Climate Change and Energy had been given an opportunity to consider the community's feedback on the proposed zone.
I advised that whilst the community is very keen for studies, but these must be accurate and based on a licensed proposal.
Mr Sankey subsequently advised me that BlueFloat had decided to withdraw their self-referral.
I welcome this announcement and acknowledge BlueFloat for their constructive engagement and taking on board the community feedback.
It is critical that the community are provided with accurate information at every step of the way and the BlueFloat proposal is based on a declared zone.
Our community has a direct role in shaping our future energy production and the brand-new industry and job opportunities that come with that.
We know that social licence engagement needs to be about working within communities to understanding local perspectives and local values - it is not the ticket that gets punched to move ahead with a project.
A new offshore wind industry represents a huge opportunity to boost Australian supply chains and local economies, in industries like steel and cement to advanced componentry.
That is why the Albanese Government will require projects to demonstrate their commitment to using Australian manufactured inputs in their projects.
This information on the use of Australian suppliers and benefits for the local economy as well as commitments to deliver good direct local jobs and training, will be used by Government in assessing the merits of project licence applications.
Renewable energy generation is something that is going to underpin the entire industrial transformation of our region and cannot be rushed.
The community must be given adequate time to consider information and nobody, developer or organisation, should pre-empt the Minister's role in considering the community's feedback.
Construction of offshore wind projects cannot commence unless a zone is declared by the Minister, and until developers have obtained a commercial licence, been approved under the EPBC Act, and had management plans approved under the Offshore Electricity Infrastructure Act.
The community still has until 23:59 AEDT on Wednesday, November 15, 2023, to submit their feedback to the Minister on the proposed zone.