In almost 50 years as a Novocastrian, port worker Shane Cameron has seen industry evolve in the steel city.
As an operator, Cameron has helped load millions of tons of coal onto ships bound for global markets over the last decade.
“Coal has such a strong link with Newcastle’s identity,” Cameron says. “We used to have BHP and that was such a big employer. Now as a region we’re known for coal.”
Newcastle port worker Shane Cameron Hunter. Ethan Hamilton
But the industry won’t last forever, he says. The self-described realist identifies offshore wind as the region’s most promising “way forward out of coal”.
“Right now it’s the best option. Anything that promotes investment in an alternative is a good thing.”
The commonwealth has already set aggressive renewable energy targets as it seeks to more rapidly wean the economy off fossil fuels, and there is growing interest in offshore wind.
In July, the Albanese government announced 1800 square kilometres along the Hunter’s coast as the country’s second declared offshore wind zone.
With its closest point around 20 km from shore, the zone has a slated capacity of 5GW and is touted to create more than 3000 jobs in construction, with 1500 ongoing.
Australia’s wind resources are considered some of the world’s best, especially in waters off the coast from major coal generation sites such as the Hunter, Gippsland and western Victoria.
The retirement of coal power stations means projects can plug into existing infrastructure and employment may be offered to those displaced by the demise of fossil fuels.
Cameron has a view of Newcastle achieving a “just transition” for coal workers through the renewable energy sector. “The hope is that we’ll be able to manufacture it all here in Newcastle,” he says.
“It’ll give the region a boost in jobs, economy and change our identity a little bit too.”
Australian company Oceanex, together with Norway-based Equinor, form one party currently vying for a feasibility licence in the zone.
The federal government has named five regions around the coast as suitable for offshore wind: Gipplsand; the Hunter region in NSW, which was the second zone to be declared; the Illawarra region off the coast south of Sydney; the Bass Strait region off northern Tasmania; and the Indian Ocean region off Perth and Bunbury in Western Australia.
Developers are eager to exploit Australia’s untapped world-class wind resources. Equis and partner SSE Renewables, Denmark’s Orsted, the world’s largest developer, Spanish group Ocean Winds, Macquarie’s Corio Generation, Star of the South, led by Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, and Shell are all in the mix, with Victoria leading the way with ambitious targets.
The Hunter’s deep-water port and existing workforce are what Oceanex COO Emily Scivetti describes as “perfect ingredients”, combined with transmission infrastructure, such as substations at Eraring and Tomago Aluminium.
“There are also really important IP opportunities for Australia around the development of floating foundation technologies,” Scivetti says.
“That’s nicely suited to the University of Newcastle’s current engineering focus.”
Following Liddell power station’s closure in April, three other stations in the Hunter – with a combined capacity of more than 5GW – are set to close in the next decade.
Oceanex’s proposed Novocastrian wind farm would consist of more than 130 turbines and have an installed capacity of 2GW, on-par with Liddell.
The company wants to establish an Australia-wide offshore wind industry, with potential for the Hunter to play a role in manufacturing.
“To have a heavy engineering workforce located within one hour of the port is exceptional,” Scivetti says.
“As coal workers begin to transition, we think that there are complementary skills to be diversified into offshore wind. “We cannot afford to rest. We are competing with every major jurisdiction around the world who is looking to deploy offshore wind.”
Sheena Martin is acting CEO of the region’s peak industry group Business Hunter, which is supportive of the zone.
While Martin recognises potential in “enormous” domestic and international interests in the Hunter’s emerging energy capabilities, she identifies some hurdles in meeting jobs demand.
“With the region’s concurrent ambitions in hydrogen, solar, onshore wind, transmission, dispatchable energy initiatives, and sovereign manufacturing, the workforce challenges are enormous, if not overwhelming in scale,” Martin says.
“This jobs growth is also set against the backdrop of record low unemployment in the Hunter, with workforce shortages impacting every sector, and critical housing shortages preventing new workers from outside the region from relocating to build capacity.
“Sequencing and coordination of these large-scale initiatives will be vital to our success.”
As the world’s largest coal exporting port, many jobs in Newcastle are tied to the fate of coal.
While the last few years have seen record coal prices driving profits in the sector, Newcastle’s role in the industry have made it a target of anti-coal blockades.
Despite an appetite for renewable energy solutions in Newcastle, Cameron says these kinds of actions aren’t widely appreciated.
“While ever you’re trying to stop jobs, you’re going to find it hard to get support in Newcastle. No matter how good your message is and how much people support the environment.”
With an identified demand of stopping coal exports through Newcastle port by 2030, environmental activist group Rising Tide has been part of the protests.
In April, 50 of its members stopped and scaled a coal train in Newcastle before shovelling some of its load onto the ground.
One member involved was group organiser Jasmine Stuart. A final-year renewable energy engineering student at the University of Newcastle, Stuart says she sees offshore wind as an opportunity to flip the narrative of climate activists.
Jasmine Stuart, a final-year renewable energy engineering student at the University of Newcastle, says offshore wind is an opportunity to flip the narrative.  
“A lot of what we do as climate activists is fighting against things,” Stuart says. “So we really want to show that we actually support the solutions.”
In June, Rising Tide held a Walk for Wind in Newcastle which attracted more than 150 people. “Regardless of what your stance on climate change is, we know the coal industry is not going to continue forever,” she says.
“We see any solutions to reducing our emissions and preventing climate change as essential. They need to happen as soon as possible and wind is one of those solutions.
“It’s an opportunity for Newcastle to continue our historic role in supporting the country’s energy system in a clean, sustainable and long-term industry. Take a step forward not a step backward.”
While an array of voices support the zone, a large part of the community remains hesitant about offshore wind.
Of the nearly 2000 submissions received during community consultation, two-thirds were opposed to the project.
With more than 1000 submissions concerned the zone’s environmental impact – including on marine ecosystems, fish, birds, and dolphins – 29 per cent of total submissions made specific mention of whales.
Many of these concerns, as well as issues of visual amenity, came from the Central Coast or Lake Macquarie, with the area accounting for close to 60 per cent of total submissions.
Relative to the proposed area the declared zone is around 1000 square kilometres smaller, 15 km further offshore at its southern end, and turbine sizes are capped at 260 metres with total capacity reduced from 8GW.
But residents north of Newcastle are calling for more consultation.
Frank Future is founder and director of whale watching tour company Imagine Cruises, operating from Nelson Bay since 1995.
“Whale watching has gone from something quite small and seasonal to a year-round event,” Future says.
Frank Future is founder and director of whale watching tour company Imagine Cruises near Newcastle. 
“Hitherto whales recovering in sufficient numbers, the winter was a very dark place and young folk couldn’t get work. They’d have to go to the cities.
“As an eco-tourism operator, I believe in promoting wildlife and a beautiful environment. But also looking after it.”
Sitting on the board of Port Stephens Tourism, Future says a big part of the hospitality industry “hangs off” whale watching.
From mid-May to the end of October, Imagine Cruises takes around 10,000 people up to 10 km offshore to see the whales.
“Anything that affects the whales affects us,” he says. “People come from all over the world for the natural environment. One that’s relatively pristine.”
As a self-described environmentalist, Future supports renewable energy but is concerned about any effect the zone may have on whale migration. He notes similar issues to those raised in the consultation process: the impact noise, vibration and electromagnetic current would have on whales.
Emily Scivetti says “rigorous legislative processes” apply to environmental approvals and that all testing would be conducted during a 5-7 year feasibility period prior to construction.
Another major source of tourism in Port Stephens is game fishing.
Newcastle and Port Stephens Game Fishing Club president Troy Radford says fishing in the area is facilitated by a patch of ocean along the continental shelf called The Carpark.
“It’s a world-renowned spot where bait fish and marlin congregate in spring and summer,” Radford says. “They come down the coast in the current and at any one time there can be 50 to 100 boats in there from all over Australia.”
While disturbance and access to this area are Radford’s priority, he also has concerns around potential impacts to the sea floor caused by construction. “We all agree that we have to do something about renewable energy. But you need to take a step forward not a step backward,” he says.
“We’ve wrecked our land digging big holes with mining, now the government wants to run out and potentially wreck our ocean.”
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