The marine renewable energy industry is an emerging industry globally. Ocean energy technologies and devices (e.g. offshore wind farms, wave energy generators) are being developed around the world, and understanding of the environmental effects of these devices is a growing area of research, largely driven by technology developers and research agencies in the Northern Hemisphere. To date, most research has focused on acute impacts on individual species. Population consequences and longer-term chronic impacts are poorly understood (e.g. Boehlert & Gill 2010, Shields et al. 2011). Indeed, the infrastructure provided by marine renewable installations, if appropriately managed and designed, may have benefits for the environment, acting as artificial reefs and de facto marine protected areas (Inger et al. 2009).
Researching and understanding the impacts associated with marine renewable energy generation constitutes a major work program of the International Energy Agency’s working group on Ocean Energy Systems (IEA-OES Annex IV: Assessment of environmental effects of and monitoring efforts for ocean wave, tidal and current energy systems). This task has focused on 3 interactions between marine energy devices and the marine environment (Copping et al. 2013):
- the physical interactions between animals and marine energy devices
- the acoustic impact of marine energy devices on marine animals
- the effects of energy removal on the physical environment.
Australia is not currently a member of the working group.
In Australia, marine renewable energy generation is a fledgling industry and, to date, has predominantly focused on wave energy (CSIRO 2012), primarily across the southern temperate coasts of Australia. At present, deployments of marine energy generators are limited to 2 precommercial-scale (small-scale—less than 500 kilowatt) power stations (off Perth, Western Australia, and off Port Fairy, Victoria), and a few experimental or prototype deployments. Some interest also exists in developing tidal energy systems in tropical northern waters and areas adjacent to the Bass Strait islands. It is currently unclear whether these activities are applicable to large-scale deployment (more than 100 megawatt capacity). Although current impacts of marine renewable energy on the Australian marine environment are unclear, Australia is endeavouring to improve the knowledge base of the environmental effects of wave energy devices in the temperate environments where they are currently being trialled. The current impacts of marine renewable energy generation on the marine environment are very low, and trends are unclear.
Although offshore wind is an established industry for marine power generation in the Northern Hemisphere, it is yet to be established in Australia. However, it can be anticipated that proposals for installations in Australia will be developed and submitted for approval within the next 5 years.