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By Holly Tancredi, Assistant Editor, Energy Magazine

2023 has begun with a tonal change in the Victorian Government, with the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning being rebranded to the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA). Anh Mai, who was recently appointed as the Executive Director of Offshore Wind Energy Victoria (OWEV), spoke to Energy Magazine regarding the huge potential of offshore wind to secure a future for the generations to come and begin energy’s golden era.

Ms Mai has an extensive background with the Victorian Government’s renewable energy priorities. With a strong history in economics, policy, business and capital management, including establishing VicGrid in 2021, and most recently working as the Acting Deputy Secretary for Energy in 2022, Ms Mai said she was looking forward to the new challenge that offshore wind presents. Ms Mai shared several foundation goals for the OWEV across 2023 including:

  • Developing a procurement process, including timelines, tranche size and support mechanism
  • Exploring and attracting investment to the state
  • Confirming legislative and regulatory approach to support offshore wind development
  • Releasing implementation statements that will articulate the Victorian Government’s plans for offshore wind

Work for the development of offshore wind in Victoria prior to 2023 included completing substantial technical studies, modelling and new strategies.

“With a myriad of stakeholders to work with, we’re excited to partner with VicGrid and the Department of Transport and Planning, and the relevant Victorian ports, to develop the necessary infrastructure to enable offshore wind development,” Ms Mai said.

The value of Victoria’s offshore future

Ms Mai said that offshore wind will play a major role in replacing existing capacity and transitioning Victoria, and the country, to a net zero future. Offshore wind will work alongside the Victorian Government’s Renewable Energy Target (VRET) to reach 95 per cent renewables by 2035.

“Offshore wind gives us valuable diversity in our renewable energy supply, in that it has a different supply profile to onshore energy,” Ms Mai said.

“It gives us a better portfolio of generation across the state and it brings economic opportunities as well as we develop the new skills and jobs for this new industry.

“We know that in the medium term, energy and the electricity sector need to do much of the heavy lifting in reducing emissions to hit our targets. We know that coal powered plants will exit over the next decade or so.”

Ms Mai wasn’t surprised that Gippsland was declared as the first location for the Australian Government’s Offshore Wind Zone due to that region having some of the world’s best offshore wind resources, with consistently high commercially viable wind speeds.

Compared to onshore wind farms, ocean wind is more powerful and more consistent across the afternoons, creating a longer period of power generation. Additionally, Gippsland has a large area of shallow ocean, and therefore suited for fixed-platform turbines to be installed, alongside the location having accessibility to a strong, established transmission grid.

“Maximising Victoria’s potential is not just going to accelerate our clean energy transition, but it’s going to support thousands of jobs, many in locations where we’ve already got coal fired power stations,” Ms Mai said.

Developing the regions

As the unofficial motto of the energy transition, Ms Mai reiterated that there can be no transition without transmission. Discussing how her previous VicGrid REZ work is tightly linked to the Offshore Wind Program, Ms Mai explained that a key discussion within DEECA is how

transmission can be more effectively planned for communities.

“People are very sensitive to how transmission is planned and placed in their community and how it affects their environment, so I’m really proud of that becoming something that this government is really focused on and cares about,” Ms Mai said.

Ms Mai said the Victorian Government’s Energy Innovation Fund 2021 first round winners demonstrated the opportunity offshore wind has for regional development, with $38 million going towards feasibility and development studies in Gippsland.

“These projects that we have supported have the potential to deliver more than 5,500 jobs. They also allow us to invest in those regions,” Ms Mai said.

Gippsland’s golden trio

The Innovation Fund awarded $38 million across three projects in Gippsland:

  • Seadragon Wind Farm
    1.5GW, Bass Strait
  • Great Southern Wind Farm
    1.5GW, Bass Coast, estimated to avoid 4,124/kt CO2 emissions per year
  • Star of the South Wind Project
    2.2GW, 200 turbines and estimated to supply 20 per cent of the state’s electricity needs

These three projects are estimated to generate $18 billion in investment and provide a significant 40 per cent of the state’s electricity consumption. The energy capacity is estimated to be around 13GW, with first power by 2028 and a target to have at least 2GW online by 2032. Ms Mai said the regions being considered for offshore wind include regional communities which welcome the economic opportunities.

“We will need to think about how [the projects] impact local communities. We’re very cognizant that local communities who are experiencing the energy transition need to be part of how the new developments and infrastructure are designed and planned,” Ms Mai said. Ms Mai spoke with compassion and empathy regarding community concerns to the challenges the transition could present.

“We understand impacts like noise and agricultural use are major factors on community support for the renewable energy industry and development of that infrastructure,” Ms Mai said. “We’re looking at how to get our policy settings and frameworks right, to make it easier for traditional owner groups and local communities to engage in land planning, transmission planning processes and development processes to better inform how our REZs are developed.”

As the Victorian offshore wind zones are connected to two REZs, DEECA are approaching the development of both offshore wind and REZs with a holistic lens. Ms Mai said there have already been active discussions about how to minimise negative impacts and ensure benefits to the community wherever they can. Ms Mai said examples of these benefits could be local jobs, energy projects or services, or community programs.

The Offshore Wind program will also be consistent with Pupangarli Marnmarnepu, the Department’s Aboriginal Self-Determination Reform Strategy 2020–2025, ensuring there is collaboration with Traditional Owners to develop a new engagement model and maintain alignment between DEECA and the Traditional Owners’ aspirations for self-determination and economic independence.

Future-proofing energy

Ms Mai said the significant changes within Victoria’s energy sector has created a unique value proposition, full of purpose and positive impacts, but that can only be actualised if people grow alongside the transition.

“We are not just building the energy landscape of the future, we’re securing and preserving a future for the generations ahead by doing this well and just attacking the climate change challenge in front of us,” Ms Mai said.

“We’re heading into the golden era of energy. We are reforming the energy landscape. We are building things that are going to be servicing our customers and our communities for decades.”

Ms Mai also said there is a clear opportunity for the industry to invest in the future workforce for offshore wind, and ensure that training partners and organisations promote interest in this new sector.

Ms Mai said the development of transmission and ports infrastructure will set up Victoria for the construction of offshore wind farms, but securing the critical supply chain and workforce capabilities and to actually deliver them will be equally important. She said the department will be working with industry and governments on how best to do so. This has led the Offshore Wind Policy Directions paper to signify workforce training as a necessary pathway to its success.

The potential for the industry’s skill shortage to halt significant renewable energy projects is also a well-known concern. The Clean Energy Regulator’s 2022 report Skilling the Energy Transition provided six key recommendations to support the training and skills growth needed to bring AEMO’s Integrated System Plan ninefold increase in renewable energy’s grid-scale generation to fruition. But with two recommendations discussing the need for greater vocational training and higher education, it’s not as straightforward as simply hiring more people.

Leading the way

The evolution of the country’s energy cannot happen from technology alone, with Ms Mai stating the industry needs top talent.

Companies are competing for this talent, and any organisation without an inclusive culture is likely to suffer the consequences of not being an employer of choice. Ms Mai said DEECA has an “elevated understanding of what equal opportunity is” and greater diversity than she’s previously experienced. As a leader and woman of colour, Ms Mai knows how pivotal it is to change the narrative away from a singular example of leadership.

Reflecting on a conversation early in her career, when she asked management for advice on presentations, she was suggested to show more traits typical of an “older, traditional, male”, with Ms Mai rejecting that notion. She also stated that she doesn’t believe in managers always needing to present as solemn or emotionally muted.

“We’ve got to ask ourselves if people see leadership as looking a certain way, and why that is. If it is because historically, that’s what we’ve experienced, then we need more leaders who look different to that,” Ms Mai said.

“There’s a lot to be said about the expression ‘You can’t be it if you don’t see it’”.

For her own team in DEECA, Ms Mai said she openly celebrates success and connects emotionally with her team, and this forms part of her leadership which is people and purpose driven.

“I really try to invest in my people because we do increasingly, especially in energy, ask a lot of our people,” Ms Mai said.

“The real question for leaders is – what’s your value proposition to your team? What are they wanting from you and how are you helping to deliver that? Not just the organisational business plan should be set as the priority – people want to know that you’re also there for them.”

Ms Mai sees an incredible opportunity for the energy industry, with people, technology and necessity unlocking previously untapped possibilities.

“Offshore wind is the next major opportunity for Victoria,” Ms Mai said. “I want to continue to be part of the solutions and the projects that help capture those opportunities.”

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