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California dips its toe into the deep waters of offshore wind energy

A rendering of the different types of offshore floating wind turbines that could be used off the coast of California. (Illustration by National Renewable Energy Laboratory/TNS )

California has taken the first step in what will be a very deep dive into energy generation from offshore wind farms.

The federal government completed an auction last week that reaped $757.1 million from five different companies to lease more than 373,000 acres off the Central and Northern coasts of the Golden State. Policymakers eager to meet state and national clean energy goals are counting on the companies in the coming years to build an array of massive wind turbines that will float on the water and send a bonanza of clean energy via underwater cables to power stations onshore.

“Offshore wind is a critical component to achieving our world-leading clean energy goals and this sale is an historic step on California’s march toward a future free of fossil fuels,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom in a statement.

The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management supervised the auction and has estimated the five leased areas have the potential to produce about 4.6 gigawatts of energy, enough to power more than 1.5 million homes.

The winning bidders still have to clear a gauntlet of federal and state regulatory and environmental reviews that will take about five years to complete before construction can begin.

The turbines will reach hundreds of feet high, with blades larger than a football field to harvest the maximum amount of wind (final designs have not yet been submitted). But when they are erected about 20 miles off Morro Bay and Humboldt County, they should be barely visible from the shore.

There are no plans to build offshore wind projects in Southern California. Wind speeds in the south are not as steady and strong as the breezes in Central and Northern California. And military officials, in discussions with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, designated Southern California a “wind exclusion” area because they worry offshore wind facilities would interfere with training missions.

The Point Mugu Sea Range north of Los Angeles and the sprawling Southern California Range Complex situated off the coast between Dana Point and San Diego take up more than 120,000 square miles of sea space for Navy training, equipping and maintaining combat-ready forces. The area is also used by the Marine Corps, the Air Force and, to a lesser extent, the Army.

Southern California utility customers will indirectly benefit from the energy generated from the offshore wind projects. The energy generated will travel via the transmission and distribution system in Northern and Central California and feed into the state’s electric grid.

The winning bids for the California leases averaged $2,028 per acre, which was lower than the $2,861 per acre average racked up at a federal offshore wind auction in North and South Carolina in May and considerably lower than the $8,951 average per acre amassed in February for offshore leases in the New York and New Jersey coasts.

“I was a little surprised it wasn’t more aggressively competitive,” said Samantha Woodworth, senior regional analyst who specializes in North American onshore and offshore wind at the consulting firm of Wood Mackenzie. “I think there’s a bit of an air of caution in the industry right now.”

Deep water

That’s because offshore wind in California is more complicated and costly than on the East Coast.

Turbines can be bolted into the seabed in the relatively shallow waters in the Atlantic. But the continental shelf off the coast of the Pacific plunges steeply.

“You’re looking at some places where you’re in 2,000 or 3,000 feet of water,” said Habib Dagher, who is developing floating offshore wind facilities as executive director of the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center. “The East Coast leases off New York were less than 150 feet of water.”

That means the wind farms in California must float on the water’s surface, tethered or moored by cables to the ocean floor. Electricity generated by the turbines will be transmitted to a floating substation and carried to a power plant onshore via buried cables, adding additional layers of complexity and expense.

California will be the first region in the U.S. to use floating wind turbines. Internationally, the first operational floating wind farm launched in 2017 off the coast of Scotland, with turbines extending 574 feet above the water. Other European companies plan to unveil floating offshore projects, but widespread commercial applications are still to come.

“The need for that large amount of space, large amount of infrastructure, large amount of labor definitely contributes to larger costs,” Woodworth of Wood Mackenzie said.

The Biden Administration hopes to deploy 30 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity on both coasts by 2030 and develop 15 gigawatts from floating offshore wind by 2035.

California has set goals of generating 2 to 5 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030 and 25 gigawatts by 2045, making wind a cornerstone in the state’s efforts to slash greenhouse gas emissions while at the same time avoiding rolling blackouts and Flex Alerts that have pushed California’s grid to the brink in recent years.

For perspective, the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in San Luis Obispo has 2.2 gigawatts of capacity, which accounts for about 9 percent of California’s power mix each year.

Dagher at the University of Maine said wind can complement the abundant supply of solar in California “because offshore wind (production) typically is better in the wintertime and solar is better in the summertime. And at nighttime, of course, you don’t have (any production from) solar but you can have a lot of good offshore wind.”

Not everyone is on board, though.

“No real studies have been done as to the effects of all those 24/7 vibrations (from turbines) on the marine environment,” said Joe Racano, director of the Ocean Outfall Group in San Luis Obispo, who is opposed to the projects. “It’s going to cause a navigational hazard for whales and migrating marine mammals.”

Dead birds

Some commercial fishers worry about the effects wind projects will have on their businesses and want federal and state regulatory agencies to slow down the process.

“Fishermen are not opposed to renewable energy,” Ken Bates, president of the California Fishermen’s Resiliency Association, told San Francisco radio station KQED. “Fishermen see what’s going on in the ocean. We see warm-water events, species shift, all of those things. Fishermen are opposed to losing the very limited fishing grounds in California.”

The American Bird Conservancy is concerned about migratory birds dying from collisions with turbine blades as well as the impacts the facilities will have on bird habitats. Looking at a variety of studies, the conservancy projects at least 700,000 birds are killed by wind farms in the U.S. each year. But Lewis Grove, the group’s director of wind and energy, is cautiously optimistic a solution can be reached to build out offshore wind in California.

“I think siting is kind of everything and when it comes to our view, a lot of the risks can be avoided at the start by putting (the turbines) in the right places,” Grove said. “There’s never going to be a wind project that’s not going to hurt birds. That’s just kind of the nature of the beast. But we believe these projects are an example of a good process that’s been put in place.”

The auction figures to be the first of many for California, which has set a target of deriving 90 percent of its electricity from net-zero sources by 2035 and 100 percent from carbon-free sources by 2045.

Earlier this year, the California Independent System Operator that manages the grid for about 80 percent of the state released a 20-year outlook and anticipated 10 gigawatts of floating offshore wind in the state’s power mix by 2040.

Dagher from the University of Maine thinks California can reach its goal of 2 to 5 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030.

“From the time you get a (Bureau of Ocean Energy Management) lease to have a project in place that could be a five-year time frame by the time you permit it and so forth,” Dagher said. “So if you add five years to 2023 you’ll have a 2028 time frame when construction could start and projects get going. So, yes, it’s going to be a challenge but it’ll be realistic.”

Woodworth of Wood Mackenzie is more circumspect.

“It’s a very, very ambitious goal and everything needs to go according to plan and perfectly right to make it happen,” she said. “They have their work cut out for them to get the grid together and bring in all of this energy, meet their decarbonization goals and make sure that everybody has the power on and that it’s affordable.”


© 2022 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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