The Australian Government has taken the first step towards the development of a new offshore renewable energy industry through the introduction of the Offshore Electricity Infrastructure Bill 2021. This Bill provides a regulatory framework to support the construction, installation, commissioning, operation, maintenance and decommissioning of electricity transmission and renewable energy infrastructure in the Commonwealth offshore area.

This framework introduces a range of reforms, including powers for the Commonwealth Government to declare Commonwealth offshore areas to be used for offshore energy infrastructure, a new licencing system for infrastructure proponents, the establishment of a Registrar and the creation of a statutory Regulator to oversee the operations of the framework and an offshore electricity infrastructure levy. Proponents will be able to apply for a range of licences include feasibility licences, commercial licences, research and demonstration licences and transmission and infrastructure licences. This system will allow proponents to apply for specific licences for their activities in a staged approach, from feasibility testing to site development and operation of renewable energy and transmission facilities, or for other purposes altogether, such as conducting research into technology, systems, processes, exploitation and exploration of energy technology.

Offshore electricity infrastructure has already been embraced across the world in forms such as wave energy, and offshore wind, solar, battery and transmission technology. If enacted, this legislation will afford opportunities for innovative projects and research in the renewables and transmission space, large-scale electricity generation and a new array of site locations for energy projects.

In July 2021, Blue Economy Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) (administered by the Commonwealth Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources) confirmed that the industry is rapidly scaling up across the UK, Europe and Asia-Pacific as costs have fallen and the size of turbines and projects has increased dramatically. In Australia, there are currently more than 10 offshore wind projects proposed with a combined capacity of over 25 GW. The CRC report indicated that Queensland, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia all have offshore wind resources in shallow waters (<60m) that are near to the coast (<50km) suited to fixed foundation turbines. However, all states also have large resources in deeper waters (>60m depth), suited to floating technologies, and for New South Wales the offshore wind resource is almost entirely in deeper waters.

Similar to the onshore renewable energy zones that have been established in recent years, significant planning will be required to establish viable locations for the development of offshore electricity infrastructure to ensure effective transmission, storage and grid connection whilst also minimising potential conflicts in the use of the marine domain (i.e. shipping corridors).

While the proposed legislative framework will introduce a new approval pathway, projects will still be required to complete a thorough environmental approval process including Commonwealth environmental assessment and approval under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) for actions likely to have a significant impact on Commonwealth marine areas, listed threatened species and communities and listed migratory species. In addition, State-level planning approval and relevant environmental approvals will be required for those aspects of the project in State coastal waters or on State land. McCullough Robertson Lawyers has extensive experience in the complex and specialised approval processes across the energy sector as well as offshore development activities. The Bill has now been referred to the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee with a report due on 14 October 2021.

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