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Newcastle Herald
Newcastle Herald

Balancing need for offshore wind and residents' worries is no breeze

THE devil is often in the details. Ask any of the opponents of offshore wind turbines along the Port Stephens coast, and they will point to the unknowns and potential for calamity. Many will probably espouse general support for renewable power, including wind, but argue it is the specifics of this proposal that have sparked their ire.

Whatever their individual motivations, those opponents will band together for a third protest against the Hunter proposal in Hawks Nest on the weekend in what is fast becoming a clear indication that renewable projects will not be immune to the criticisms, minor and major, that proliferate the planning system. Any change is likely to inspire concerns that it will be a step backwards, somehow diminishing what is there. Opponents at Port Stephens say their voices went unheard during a consultation the government has deemed adequate.

The head of Australia's most experienced offshore wind company, Oceanex chief executive Andy Evans, said he had been taken aback by the scale of the Hunter campaign.

"We were a bit surprised about how much misinformation is out there and the fact that people haven't gone and done more work to actually understand what the issues are," he said. "You just have to look at how people jumped onto Trump talking about wind farms killing whales a couple of weeks ago. Even Greenpeace had to come out and say there was no evidence that wind farms were impacting on whales."

Today the government will begin sifting through applications for feasibility licences for wind farms. With Opposition Leader Peter Dutton vocal on the Port Stephens front, it is unlikely to be a process that can escape the political limelight. Planners must take in all concerns to strike an imperfect balance, one in which perhaps no one is overjoyed or left with any concessions.

Mr Evans, however, makes one point clear: behind the fight over the specifics of the Port Stephens plan stands an energy transition that perhaps cannot move quickly enough at full speed to entirely offset the demise of ageing infrastructure in this state.

These are challenging times. While the government must be cautious, it faces significant pressure to be swift as well.

"A lot of people are overlooking the fact that there won't be new coal. No one is going to rebuild coal-fired power generation because it's too expensive," Mr Evans said.

"In NSW, 70 per cent of electricity comes from black coal. That's all going to be out of the system by 2035.

"A lot of people don't want to admit that, but it's the reality.

"You've also got electric vehicles coming online as well. That is going to need an extra 18 to 20 per cent electricity beyond what the supply is at the moment.

"In NSW there's a need for new large scale, electricity generation and offshore wind is the key to it."

None of that is a reason to dismiss concerns out of hand. But it is perhaps a counterweight to those who simply do not want renewable projects in their backyard.

Port Stephens is a pristine area, much of which is protected as a marine park. Those with concerns about preserving that beautiful part of this region rightly point to the fact that new energy infrastructure cannot come at the expense of the existing environment.

Those devilish details, then, will remain flashpoints as projects emerge, until those with serious doubts and those influenced by misinformation can be swayed or appeased.

There should be no easy ride for infrastructure on this scale, but an earlier start in planning for a clean energy future may have removed some of the time pressure.

ISSUE: 40,065

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