Fans of renewable energy anticipate a bonanza blowing off the coast of California.
But a map released by the U.S. Navy puts large swaths of the state off limits to future offshore wind farms – including all of San Diego and Los Angeles, extending up to the Central Coast.
The military does not have the final say in the matter, as federal and state officials – as well as wind energy companies and at least one member of Congress – are working with the U.S. Department of Defense to develop a more flexible plan.
But the back-and-forth adds an extra layer of complexity to the nascent industry on the West Coast, where geographic features make it harder to construct wind farms in the Pacific than those on the East Coast.
“There’s a lot at stake here” for California to meet its ambitious clean energy goals, said Robert Collier, a policy analyst at the Green Energy Program at the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education. “California is going to need a lot more renewable energy from all sources. Offshore wind is not the only potential solution, but it is part of a multi-pronged strategy.”
Why offshore wind must float on the West Coast
The sight of wind turbines anchored into the ground, their blades turning like giant pinwheels, has become more common in recent years.
But it’s rare to see a wind farm looming over open water – at least in the United States. European companies with projects in places like Denmark and Scotland have taken the early lead in offshore wind energy.
The first commercial offshore wind facility in the U.S. was launched in December 2016 – the 30-megawatt Block Island Wind Farm in Rhode Island – and more are in the works.
In the Atlantic, offshore wind turbines can be bolted into the seabed in relatively shallow water.
But the continental shelf off the coast of the Pacific plunges quickly and steeply. That leaves developers with just one option – floating wind farms tethered, or moored, by cables to the ocean floor that don’t penetrate the surface. Electricity from the turbines is transmitted to a floating substation and carried to a power plant onshore via a buried cable.
It’s estimated that nearly a terrawatt of electricity will be generated off the coast of California, 13 times more capacity than all the land-based wind farms across the country generate.
But in the past year, some of the lofty expectations have been tempered.
Two years ago, a Seattle-based company called Trident Winds filed an unsolicited lease request to build a floating wind project 33 nautical miles off the coast of Morro Bay near San Luis Obispo. Since then, Norwegian energy giant Statoil has also expressed interest.
At the request of Gov. Jerry Brown, the federal government’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management established an intergovernmental task force to look into opportunities for offshore wind in California.
State waters extend from the shoreline to three nautical miles into the ocean. Federal waters extend from three miles to 200 nautical miles. Floating offshore wind projects are typically located in federal waters but since the cables connect onshore, they cross state waters. That means state as well as federal agencies are involved.
Resistance from the military
The Department of Defense (DOD) was asked to provide its assessment of the California coast. Last summer the Navy released a map, using the colors of a traffic light – green for no restrictions, yellow for site-specific stipulations and red for what it called “wind exclusion” where the military wanted no wind farms at all.
Blue areas were coded for sites designated as National Marine Sanctuaries.
The red “no-go” areas covered all of Southern California – from the southern tip of the Mexican border, extending through San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and going all the way to Big Sur. The area included the Central Coast – site of the potential Morro Bay projects.
The only areas colored green were located north of Mendocino.
The Navy said the red areas should be off limits to wind projects because they would conflict with “the requirements of Navy and Marine Corps missions conducted in the air, on the surface, and below the surface of these waters.”
The map was updated in February and became more restricted. All the green areas turned yellow.
Why is all of Southern California in the red zone? Steve Chung, the Navy Region Southwest Encroachment Program Director, pointed to 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.
The complex encompasses more than 120,000 square miles of sea space for training, equipping and maintaining combat-ready forces, “supporting the largest concentration of naval forces in the world,” Chung said.
The area is also used by the Marine Corps, the Air Force (Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc) and, to a lesser extent, the Army.
“It’s a very congested environment out there,” said Chung, “and we start (by) pointing out other activities such as marine traffic or civilian air traffic. When you begin presenting structures such as wind turbines, now you’re introducing additional complexities.”
When asked if putting wind farms in Southern California would be a hard nut to crack, Chung said, “Southern California is beyond a hard nut to crack. I don’t see any realistic, conceivable manner where we can find offshore wind to co-exist with the degree and complexity of operations that are occurring in Southern California.”
The wind blows harder as you move up the California coast and that’s where wind developers have really set their sights.
It’s also attractive to California policymakers to meet the state’s renewable energy goals. The state’s Renewables Portfolio Standard requires power companies to derive 50 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2030.
Renewables have a problem with “intermittency” – solar energy dips when the sun doesn’t shine and land-based wind falls off when the wind doesn’t blow.
Offshore wind blows harder and more consistently which, its supporters say, will help balance the state’s grid while allowing for more integration of clean energy sources.
A small community power authority in Humboldt County is in position to become the first to establish a floating wind farm in the country.
“We’re excited,” said Lori Biondini, the director of business development and planning at the Redwood Coast Energy Authority, a community choice aggregator, or CCA. “We like to be pioneers of things in the energy world.”
Last month, the group formed a consortium to erect a 100 to 150-megawatt wind farm of between 12 to 15 turbines more than 20 miles off the coast of Eureka. The turbines, Biondini said, will be 700 to 900 feet tall. The project is expected to go online in 2024 or 2025.
“We have a world-class wind resource,” Biondini said. “We have a way, way better wind resource up here than they do in Southern California.” Average wind speeds off the Humboldt County coast exceed 10 meters per second, or 22 mph.
The Navy’s updated map changed the coast of Humboldt County from green to yellow but the project is “still definitely workable,” Biondini said.
Chung said the color was changed largely because the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) wanted more information about the turbines to make sure they don’t interfere with long-range radar.
But like Biondini, Chung sounded upbeat, saying, “We will continue to be very encouraged and very optimistic for the art of the possible in Northern California.”
The outlook for the Central Coast is more cloudy.
“It’s in a holding pattern,” said Alla Weinstein, the founder of Trident Winds, the company that wants to construct a wind farm off the coast of Morro Bay. “We’re working on the issues but it will take some time to work them through.”
If given the go-ahead, the Trident Winds project would be about six times more powerful than the facility planned at Humboldt Bay.
After a meeting in February, state officials, the military and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) decided DOD should meet with wind companies interested in building wind projects off the Central Coast to try to work things out.
“We are in ongoing discussions, not only with Trident but with other developers,” Chung said, but the Central Coast “is still red in our assessment.”
Rep. Salud Carbajal, a congressman and Democrat from the San Luis Obispo area, wants the Navy to show some flexibility.
He met with Navy representatives in March in Washington and came away encouraged.
“They didn’t come in with an obstructionist attitude,” Carbajal said. “They expressed a willingness to continue the conversation with various companies and to find opportunities within the challenges they have outlined in their mapping.”
The San Luis Obispo economy is about to take a hit with the imminent closure of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant that employs nearly 1,500 people. Carbajal sees offshore wind as a way to replace some of those jobs.
“We have to be able to develop this type of technology,” he said in a telephone interview from Washington.
For her part, Weinstein said Trident Winds is still holding to its target date to open in 2025.
“Conflicts are resolved through diplomacy,” Weinstein said. “That’s what we’re doing. We’re discussing and we’re looking at solutions.”
Who makes the call
The Navy may have released its map but the Department of Defense does not, officially, have the power to determine where offshore wind projects get built.
That rests with BOEM, which has permitting authority in the Outer Continental Shelf. The agency is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
There’s no word on when BOEM officials will make a final decision on sites, said John Romero, the head of public affairs for the bureau’s Pacific region.
“The Defense Department is a key partner here,” Romero said.“We are working together, we’re keeping the discussion going, we’re working hard at trying to mitigate any potential conflicts.”
Collier of the UC Berkeley Labor Center, who thinks the Navy’s map is too restrictive, said the military may not have veto power when it comes to siting wind farms in California but, for all practical purposes, it does.
“Technically, the Navy is just yet another stakeholder. De facto they are, of course, the 800-hundred pound gorilla,” Collier said. “If BOEM were to simply ignore the Navy then the Navy would essentially appeal this and the appeal would go all the way to the president’s cabinet. And who’s got more power, the Interior secretary or the Defense secretary?”
A Marine veteran, Carbajal said he understands the military’s concerns.
“But at the same time (we need to be) looking at the changing landscape,” he said. “And renewable energy is certainly one of those areas we should try to accommodate while also maintaining our security resources.”
Chung defended the mapping.
“Within the Department of Defense, one of our primary and core objectives is to maintain our military readiness and ensure our national security,” he said.
A final DOD assessment will be delivered to BOEM but Chung said he didn’t know when it will be submitted.