FORT BRAGG, 5/26/21 — The Biden Administration has announced a major push for marine wind energy on the West Coast, focused on California sites off Humboldt County and Morro Bay in San Luis Obispo County.
Extensive interviews with top officials show that Governor Gavin Newsom and top officials in the Biden Administration have been working on this project for sometime, at public meetings and behind the scenes to answer key objections from the Department of Defense in Central California and move the entire process forward. But there are big questions as to whether California’s coast can deliver what the Biden administration has promised. For example, a 2020 study by the California Energy Commission says the floating technology needed is unproven at scale and serious questions about both the regulatory process and the technology remain unanswered.
Yesterday’s announcement highlights Humboldt and Morro Bay as the first to move forward, with leasing expected next year, followed by a process of at least five years. Although hampered by its aging power grid, Mendocino County’s offshore wind energy resource is actually slightly better than both chosen sites and developers have been looking at the tremendous wind energy resource found offshore Northern Mendocino County. However, Humboldt County has been preparing for offshore wind energy for several years through its joint powers authority, the Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA), which could give residents of that county a strong role in creating wind energy jobs, having a say in environmental issues and more. Mendocino County’s governments and utilities have yet to take an interest in the offshore wind energy process.
This article is part of a series on what is happening in wind and wave energy off California from a Mendocino County perspective, with looks at the dramatic history and how high the hopes are that the ocean can help power a renewable economy. We talked to more than a dozen experts in the field, including wave and wind energy developers, regulators and non-profits. Some were off the record. Among the most prominent were Tim Ramsey, head of marine and hydrokinetic energy for the U.S Department of Energy and Jason Busch, executive director of the Pacific Ocean Energy Trust in Portland.
President Biden has put some of his biggest names into the effort to develop wind energy off the Pacific Coast.
“Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Dr. Colin Kahl, and California Governor Gavin Newsom today (Tuesday, May 25) announced an agreement to advance areas for offshore wind off the northern and central coasts of California. This significant milestone is part of the Biden-Harris administration’s goal to create thousands of jobs through the deployment of 30 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind by 2030,” the May 25 Department of Interior press release stated.
“The Department of the Interior, in cooperation with the Department of Defense and the State of California, has identified a 399 square mile area off Morro Bay that will support 3 gigawatts of offshore wind. The Department of the Interior is also advancing the Humboldt Call Area as a potential Wind Energy Area. These identified areas will enable the build out of a significant new domestic clean energy resource over the next decade or more.”
But even wind energy’s most optimistic boosters wonder if offshore wind energy can truly be installed off California by 2030. For the plans announced today to work, a spectacular scientific breakthrough must succeed and the regulatory process would have to be improved. In contrast to other parts of the world, for wind energy to work offshore California the turbines must float, as our steep continental shelf means the ocean is too deep for fixed wind turbines. Nearly all the world’s roughly 5000 existing working wind turbines now are anchored to the bottom. The USA’s first floating wind farm is planned off Maine. Floating wind energy has made major recent breakthroughs off Portugal and France in working experiments. A permitting process is underway in South Korea and Japan — but at present there is only one working floating wind energy farm in the world, off Scotland
An August 2020 study by the California Energy Commission found that floating wind technology is not only nascent, but still unproven at scale.
“California faces various challenges with installing offshore wind turbines. These challenges include insufficient offshore wind historical-technical data and maturity of floating offshore wind technology, depth of offshore waters, high cost of floating technology, lack of information on the impact of these systems on sensitive species and habitats, strict environmental standards, and untested permitting processes,” the California Energy Commission study found. Proponents including Busch point out that the technology of floating energy platforms has long been proven by the oil industry, which utilizes them in even deeper waters than being contemplated for California offshore wind.
Humboldt County’s Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA) has agreements with major energy developers that if the right political and regulatory winds continue to blow, could place 10 floating wind turbines 850 feet tall (100 feet taller than the top of the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge) about 30 miles out to sea, providing 150 megawatts of power.
Resource maps show California’s wind energy’s resource (speed and consistency of winds) gets better the further north one goes, with the best winds off Crescent City but also spots off Mendocino and Humboldt County that could create tremendous amounts of wind energy from giant turbines in a much smaller area of the ocean than the fixed platforms off the Atlantic Coast .
“The resource that exists off Mendocino County has not gone unnoticed,” said Jason Busch, executive director of the Pacific Ocean Energy Trust (POET), a Portland nonprofit whose mission is to ensure responsible marine energy development in the Pacific.
More than a dozen companies have been interested in Humboldt County, including sites in Southern Humboldt and ocean areas off Northern Mendocino County. Much is happening behind the scenes and many companies have been looking at long-term plans for developing wind energy off Northern California as the world’s hunger for renewable energy increases.
The Redwood Coast Energy Authority is a local government joint powers authority (JPA) utilizing the community choice aggregation process to be involved in energy projects:
There is no guarantee the local partners in Humboldt and Morro Bay, who have linked with major energy developers, will win the leases off the shores of Eureka and Morro Bay, as there are competing proposals out there. If they do, there would then be another 5 to 10 years before the turbines actually are installed, industry estimates stated. Matthew Marshall, executive director of the Redwood Coast Energy Authority, said the backers of the community power effort feel that ensuring some local control and local environmental values made it worth it to participate in the current process.
The process and timeframe underway in Humboldt County
Humboldt County has used its community choice aggregation process to launch a list of local renewable energy projects and proposals including land-based wind energy proposals, solar and conservation projects. Mendocino County could develop a community choice aggregation process through Sonoma Clean Power. Now is the time for ocean-based communities to begin thinking about where their water and power will come from in the next 50 years, POET’s Busch said.
“I love the idea of a community deciding that they want to have energy generation and be in control of it as a way of relocalizing their own economy. That way locals are not beholden to faraway shareholders or even regulators, taking away a local resource and telling the community what kind of power they will get,” Busch said.
“Humboldt County has grabbed that bull by the horns and said ‘We’re gonna have offshore wind. It’s good for our community, it’s good for the planet. It’s good for our economy. We are going to make sure this is done the right way,’” Busch said.
Mendocino County utilities and governments not involved in marine energy discussions
Sonoma Clean Power (SCP) does not currently have any plans for marine energy being part of the local portfolio, said Kate Kelly, director of public relations & marketing for SCP. She referenced the community choice aggregation effort underway in Humboldt County through RCEA. Sonoma Clean Power works in both Mendocino and Sonoma counties, but the wind resource off Sonoma is not as dramatic, yet far closer to major grid hookups.
PG&E, once a leader in the field, currently has no marine energy in its portfolio, said Deanna Contreras, North Coast spokesperson for PG&E. Mendocino County Supervisor Dan Gjerde, who was active in the issue of offshore marine energy the last time it came up with a major wave energy process off Fort Bragg and Mendocino ending in 2011, said he had not heard anything about offshore renewable development for Mendocino County in recent years, nor is anything in the works in Mendocino County compared to what Humboldt County is doing.
Humboldt County has a larger population and a natural harbor, and port, better equipped to handle hookups and manufacture the giant mooring cables and floating platforms the offshore wind farm would require. Offshore wind devices, mostly out of sight and away from almost all the fishing fleets, could eventually be linked together up and down the coast, theoretical plans of some developers show.
Although the Biden Administration is now pushing the Pacific Coast’s wind energy, there is zero offshore wind generation here, nor even any leases or other definite plans, despite public wind maps showing the best offshore wind energy resources in the nation, which are shown on the BOEM site and: WINDExchange: California Offshore 90-Meter Wind Map and Wind Resource Potential
That’s partly because the Pacific continental shelf drops off too quickly and waters are too deep for energy devices to be fixed to the bottom in the far offshore areas where the wind is best. Back in 2013, a floating wind energy farm was proposed off Coos Bay, Oregon by a company called Principle Power, but the technology wasn’t far enough along at that point.
Biden is biggest booster but marine energy has advanced in all administrations
Although the spotlight is now on the Biden administration’s emphasis on wind energy, offshore renewable energy has been growing steadily since it was a big deal in Fort Bragg a decade ago. That’s through Bush, Obama and yes, the Trump administration. While Trump proposed budgets that deeply cut funding for wind energy and other alternatives, there was bi-partisan consensus in Congress to put monies back in and the alternative energy sector, including marine renewables, continued to grow.
The Department of Energy’s Tim Ramsey has overseen forward progress on marine energy through presidential regimes regardless of party. Over the past 15 years the budget for marine energy has grown from $10 million to $109 million in 2020 with $150 million expected in 2021. Ramsey said 2020 was a banner year for funding of marine energy and expected more this year under Biden when interviewed in March. Ramsey is program manager for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office’s Marine Energy Program.
“It’s shocking how much is happening. We are fundamentally rebuilding our entire energy structure around the world. And that’s not something that happens overnight. For all of us, especially if we are motivated by concerns about climate as I am, it never seems like we are doing enough and it never seems fast enough,” said POET’s Busch in a more recent interview.
Humboldt County and the Morro Bay area are leading the way in exploring the possibility of wind energy through local community choice aggregation and agreements with energy developers. In addition to being singled out by the Biden Administration announcement on May 25, they are expected to be the first two West Coast offshore wind energy leases to be granted in 2022, with the process underway for those two spots since before 2018.
“We realized that this was an opportunity. And we started to have industry folks, be like hey you know what we’re kicking the tires of Humboldt County as far as a place to develop offshore wind. We all have the same map that shows the quality of the resource,” said RCEA’s Marshall.
At 30 miles offshore, the giant wind turbines would be barely visible from shore, Marshall said.
The potential for marine energy harvesting off Northern California is so good because of a combination of how far winds travel uninterrupted across the open ocean wind and the shape of the continental shelf. Offshore wind turbines can be much bigger and exponentially more powerful than land-based.
Wind energy practical now in shallower Atlantic waters
So far, most of what is happening is in the Atlantic. Earlier this month, the Biden Administration announced a major wind energy project off Martha’s Vineyard.(US approves its first big offshore wind farm, near Martha’s Vineyard – it’s a breakthrough for the industry)
The Biden administration announced a goal in March to develop 30 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity this decade in the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes and promised to improve the federal review process. The nation has just seven turbines with 42 megawatts of offshore wind power capacity working today, the press release from the Department of Interior stated. The administration also pledged to streamline the notoriously lengthy regulatory process. More than 100 other projects are in the works for the Atlantic region. Wave energy proponents interviewed say the increased federal investment offshore in wind will likely lift other marine energy sources like wave, tidal, ocean current and even temperature gradient marine energy.
Federal, state compromises led to wind energy in the Pacific announcement
The May 25 announcement represented a major compromise between and among state and federal agencies. The Department of Defense had been a major thorn in the side of wind energy development until 2021, raising objections to wind energy sites off Central California because those sites were found in key military testing and training areas (The same objection was not raised for Humboldt County).
The Navy had published its objections but now a compromise has been reached.
“Tacking the climate crisis is a national security imperative and the Defense Department is proud to have played a role in this important effort,” said Dr. Colin Kahl, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy in the May 25 press release. “The Defense Department is committed to working across the U.S. government to find solutions that support renewable energy in a manner compatible with essential military operations. Throughout this effort, the Defense Department has worked tirelessly with the White House, the Department of the Interior, and the State of California to find solutions that enable offshore wind development while ensuring long-term protection for testing, training, and operations critical to our military readiness. The Defense Department applauds this step and looks forward to continued coordination to address the climate crisis.”
In addition to contributing to the goals of the Biden-Harris administration, the development of offshore wind can help California reach its goal of carbon free energy by 2045, create good-paying, union jobs, and foster investments in coastal communities, the press release said. Offshore wind resources are typically stronger and more consistent than land-based wind and is especially strong in the evening hours when solar production drops off, ensuring that it can make an important contribution to California’s electric grid.
“Developing offshore wind to produce clean, renewable energy could be a game changer to achieving California’s clean energy goals and addressing climate change – all while bolstering the economy and creating new jobs,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in the press release. “This historic announcement, which could provide clean power for up to 1.6 million homes over the next decade, represents the innovative approach we need for a clean energy economy that protects the coasts, fisheries, marine life, and Tribal and cultural resources we value so much as Californians.”
BOEM, in partnership with California, will hold an Intergovernmental Renewable Energy Task Force meeting on June 24 to discuss the identified areas off the north and central coasts as potential WEAs. Following the task force meeting, the WEAs can be finalized and will undergo environmental analysis; BOEM will also undertake government-to-government tribal consultation. The processes for the northern and central coasts will then be merged in a Proposed Sale Notice (PSN) for one lease sale auction, targeted for mid-2022. More information on offshore wind development is available at: https://www.doi.gov/priorities/clean-energy-future.
Environmental concerns remain
The Biden Administration is moving to get the USA back in the game now dominated by Europe and Asia with new funding, initiatives and by improving a lengthy and often redundant environmental process. Environmentalists are concerned about the cumulative effects of marine renewable energy on the ocean, particularly if local communities are not part of the discussion.
Environmental effects of offshore wind energy are being studied, using data from Europe, where there have been offshore fixed windmills since 1991. Issues regarding sound, electromagnetic fields, damage to the environment by construction and introduction of non-native species have come up and are being studied as the process moves forward.
With cable “legs” the size of telephone poles and with the devices to be located beyond most fishing areas and beyond the gray whale migratory routes, Marshall said the risk of entanglement by whales is greatly lessened but will still be the topic of intense study as the issue goes forward.
Marine energy’s history intrigues, grows, even in failures
Offshore marine energy’s proponents seem to stick with the field long-term, including regulators like Ramsey and John Romero at BOEM, both of whom have been involved in efforts for nearly two decades. One of the most famous entrepreneurs is Alla Weinstein, who headed Aqua Wave, the company that took the first wave energy device into the water in 2009, (which was after she had left the firm). Unfortunately, that buoy device sunk and took nine months to retrieve, resulting in a backlash for the industry. She was also CEO of Principle Power, the company that developed floating wind energy technology in the USA,and is now founder and CEO of Trident Energy, which is at the forefront of offshore floating Pacific Coast wind energy development, according to those involved in the field.
The technologies and companies often have dramatic proposals that make big impacts before disappearing almost as quickly as they appeared. Many entrepreneurs have sought to give aging infrastructure for oil and gas new life in renewable energy, such as California’s 27 offshore oil drilling platforms. Unfortunately, most exist in places like the Santa Barbara channel, where wind and wave energy are both comparably weak. The platform furthest north, dubbed Irene (each is named) may end up being used in the latest offshore wind proposals being pushed by the Biden Administration.
“For turning this enormous ship that is the energy sector around, it is really happening. People are very excited now with the new administration that actually accepts the consensus science on climate that something drastic needs to happen as quickly as possible in order to restrict the amount of CO2 that’s going into the atmosphere,” POET’s Busch said.
California’s safeguard is the Ocean Protection Council
With legislation requiring California to transition to 100 percent renewable energy by December 31, 2045, the California Energy Commission (CEC) leads the state’s offshore wind efforts, and the Ocean Protection Council (OPC) works to ensure that any offshore wind development minimizes impacts to marine life, fisheries, and cultural resources. In 2010, OPC established the California Marine Renewable Energy Working Group (CMREWG).
The CMREWG is composed of state agencies working to improve regulatory coordination among state and federal agencies with jurisdiction relevant to marine renewable energy. In 2016 then-governor Jerry Brown was granted a request to the Department of Interior that the federal agency establish a marine renewable energy task force, primarily in response to a proposal by Trident Winds LLC to build a 765-megawatt floating wind farm on the Outer Continental Shelf off Morro Bay. www.tridentwinds.com. That is the same area as the project now awaiting leases along with Humboldt County.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom has long been a key proponent of marine energy, having helped pioneer a wave proposal at Ocean Beach and a tidal project east of the Golden Gate Bridge while mayor of San Francisco. Although neither project ever hit the water (nor have any others in California so far), Newsom has remained active behind the scenes in the field of clean marine energy, others in the field said in interviews. Newsom continues to be a believer in the resource. “The Newsom Administration has been actively participating in an intergovernmental task force that brings together state, local and federal agencies and tribal governments to advance offshore wind, including exploring offshore lease areas in the Central Coast, which currently are not available in California for development,” a May 6, 2021 statement from the governor’s office said.
Also at the state level, Assemblymember David Chiu introduced Assembly Bill 525 in February 2021. The bill would set a target of 10 gigawatts of offshore wind energy off the California coast by 2040. The bill cleared the Assembly Utilities and Energy Committee in April.
While the Biden administration shoots for 30GW on the East Coast, a 2020 National Renewable Energy Laboratory study found that the California coast has the potential for about 200 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind. Another NREL study found that the Gulf of Mexico could see 508 GW. Alaska’s potential is even greater at almost 3,000 GW of offshore wind. Hawaii has seen some interest from floating offshore wind developers too. However, these areas have characteristics that make them more difficult for offshore wind development — extreme weather in the Gulf of Mexico, deeper waters off California and Hawaii, and a dispersed grid in Alaska, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Offshore wind is more technically complex than onshore wind, making it more expensive. The global average levelized cost of electricity for onshore wind is $0.053 per kilowatt-hour (kWh), whereas for offshore wind it is $0.115 per kWh, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Offshore wind comes at a much higher cost than other forms of energy right now, but backers are confident it will continue to drop as the technology continues to improve over time.
The potential is tremendous.
“Utilizing just one-tenth of the technically available marine energy resources in the 50 states would equate to 5.7 percent of our nation’s current electricity generation—enough energy to power 22-million homes (U.S. Energy Information Administration 2020),” DOE documents state.
According to the DOE, the total marine energy technical potential resource in the 50 states is 2,300 terawatt hours per year, equivalent to 57 percent of the electricity generated by those states in 2019. The nation’s Pacific and Caribbean territories and freely associated states add an additional 4,100 TWh/yr of potential ocean thermal energy resource, although that power source is still much more theoretical. Transporting all that energy off islands would be another challenge.
California Energy Commission’s Offshore Renewable Energy Program here:
More regarding Offshore Wind, here is the CEC’s August 2020 Final Project Report on Research and Development Opportunities for Offshore Wind in California: