Bringing Offshore Wind into California’s Future

This is the second part in a two-blog series about offshore wind development in California. In Part 1, we explained why offshore wind might be the missing link in California’s zero-carbon electricity future. In this blog, we describe the barriers offshore wind development faces and trace a path to jump-start the industry in California.

The California Public Utilities Commission estimates that about 7 GW of offshore wind could be part of California’s ideal zero-carbon electricity mix by 2045. This is equal to around 9 % of the total electricity producing capacity in California. Any strategy to develop offshore wind in California needs to solve for offshore wind’s own three-body problem: avoiding local environmental impacts; figuring out how to meet stakeholder needs which includes state and federal regulatory requirements, the needs of the fishing industry, and the Department of Defense; and building enough offshore wind to make it profitable to developers while being a cost-effective investment for Californians.

To solve this problem in a timely manner, the state and stakeholders need to commit to getting the first 100 MW of offshore development commissioned within the next year. 100 MW is enough to meet the electric demand of approximately twenty five thousand average California homes and more than three times the amount of floating offshore wind that exists worldwide today.

This initial project is big enough to pique the industry’s interest. It will also be a valuable source of data to (1) figure out the impacts these wind farms have on the environment, (2) balance stakeholder needs and figure out smooth regulatory processes to permit offshore wind build-outs, and (3) enable the industry to get going in California to bring down the cost of future offshore wind development.

The rest of the blog explains in detail the barriers offshore wind faces and why building the first 100 MW project is the way to go.

Jessica Russo (NRDC)

Environmental: Protecting Unparalleled Marine Ecosystems

We must strive to make sure offshore wind development in California has minimal environmental impacts on its unique and diverse marine ecosystem. To accomplish this, we need to prioritize understanding how offshore wind farms could impact California’s marine ecosystem, and then figure out how to site and maintain these wind farms to minimize any ecological disruption.

California’s Pacific coastline is well known for its scenic beauty and biologically rich ecosystems. Iconic species such as the blue whale, the humpback whale, the fin whale, and the gray whale call its waters home. NRDC’s report “Harnessing the Wind: How to Advance Wind Power Offshore” recommends measures to mitigate construction noise that can be harmful to these species. Solutions such as bubble curtains, ultraviolet lights and ultrasonic noise emitters can protect birds and bats from crashing into the turbines.

Figuring out Regulatory Processes and Addressing Stakeholder Concerns

Untangling the regulatory complexities of offshore wind isn’t an easy task. Offshore wind in California will most likely be built in federal waters – beyond three nautical miles or around three and a half miles. This means that the electricity these turbines produce will travel via undersea transmission cables through federal and state waters to reach the electric grid. Federal and state agencies have separate regulatory processes that offshore wind companies must follow to get approval for construction and operation.

In addition to these permitting challenges, there are key stakeholder concerns that must be addressed if offshore wind development is to proceed smoothly.

First, on the Central Coast, offshore wind development needs to overcome the Department of Defense’s concerns that offshore wind projects can interfere with long-range radars (air defense and homeland security radars), weather surveillance radars, and military operations. Second, the state’s commercial fisheries generate millions of dollars of revenue annually, and California’s fishermen are concerned that large scale offshore wind development could strip them of important fishing grounds and habitat. Finally, offshore wind farms would need to be sited so as not to conflict with intensively used shipping routes.

Economics: Right Sizing Investments for Everyone’s Benefit

What scale and pace of offshore wind deployment are cost-effective for the state’s electricity sector, and to California’s economy at large? The California Public Utilities Commission estimates that approximately 7 GW of offshore wind may be needed to get to our 2045 zero-carbon goals. Of that 7 GW, 1.6 GW may be needed by 2030 if we set an aggressive 2030 carbon reduction milestone, and no out of state wind is available.

Creating an offshore wind industry in California will require building infrastructure, custom-built floating turbines, dedicated transmission lines, and port upgrades, to name a few. All this spending will have a positive impact on the state. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), through an unrelated study, estimated that if California builds 10 GW of offshore wind, it could bring in approximately $20 billion to California’s economy and create a total of 14,890 construction jobs by 2050.

Although offshore wind development needs to get started, building small pilot projects isn’t attractive for developers or cost-effective for electricity consumers. This is because of the large amount of capital necessary to get these turbines built and to connect them to the grid. But, going too big, too soon, would mean overlooking environmental concerns, the needs of the fishing industry, and the Department of Defense.

A Path Forward: Commit to Building the First 100 MW of Offshore Wind

Until the first wind farm floats, we won’t know the impact these turbines will have on local ecosystems, the fishing industry, or the Department of Defense’s activities. Moreover, to provide clean electricity in a timely manner to help California get to its clean electricity goals, environmentally responsible offshore wind deployment needs to start soon. A right sized near-term commitment will open the gate to unleash California’s offshore wind potential. Committing to developing the first 100 MW in the three call areas (Humboldt, Morro Bay, and Diablo Canyon, which combined can easily handle that) within the next year is the way to go.

Industry, environmental organizations, and regulators should work together through the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the California Energy Commission’s existing processes to determine how to get this first 100 MW built. Then industry and stakeholders can begin collecting the data that we need to figure out how to scale up offshore wind to seventy times that size - 7 GW.

About the Authors

Sergio Sanchez Lopez

Sustainable Energy Fellow

Mohit Chhabra

Senior Scientist, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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