California’s North Coast, along with southern Oregon, has the strongest offshore winds in the U.S., researchers say, and could generate approximately 4% of the state’s electricity needs if a larger offshore wind farm was built in a 200-square-mile area about 20 miles off the coast of Humboldt Bay.
“It’s quite significant,” Arne Jacobson, director of the Schatz Energy Research Center at Humboldt State University, said at a virtual session presenting the findings of local offshore wind research on Monday afternoon. “Not just on the scale of our region, but in terms of the scale of the state as a whole.”
As California tries to reach aggressive its renewable energy goals – the state has a target of reaching 100% renewable energy by 2045 – the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is looking into the best offshore locations for wind energy, including Morro Bay and Diablo Canyon near San Luis Obispo in addition to the Humboldt Bay area.
“The wind resource there is not as strong as it is here on the North Coast,” said Necy Sumait, chief of renewable energy in the Pacific region for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. “There are some other advantages to those sites. The sites are closer to larger electric load centers … and there’s also better transmission infrastructure in those regions.”
However, Sumait said the potential to proceed in those areas is limited by the Department of Defense’s concerns of wind energy interfering with its military mission in those areas.
The limited transmission infrastructure connecting Humboldt County to the rest of California is a major barrier to offshore wind development, said Mark Severy, who is now a marine energy specialist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, but who worked on the offshore wind energy research for 18 months at Schatz.
Wind speeds can vary widely day by day and week by week in a given season, Severy said, and sustained high winds in the area could produce vast quantities of electricity for export, but the county doesn’t have a transmission line that could accommodate that quantity of power.
“Humboldt County’s transmission system is isolated and it’s designed to have existed generators meet the majority of the regional load,” Severy said. “The transmission system was not necessarily designed to be a net exporter of electricity so there’s limited transmission infrastructure into and out of the region.”
At the larger end, a 200-square-mile wind farm would reduce the county’s reliance on imports of natural gas, but wouldn’t entirely eliminate it, Severy said.
“That’s because when there’s periods of low wind speed, and the turbines aren’t generating much power, we still need to find a way to meet that energy demand,” Severy said. “So with the infrastructure we have now, that would either be through imports or through the natural-gas-fired plant here locally.”
The Schatz Center will be hosting weekly virtual sessions discussing the findings of completed offshore wind studies on Mondays, with the next session expected to cover the ecological and geological environment in the area where a wind project could be developed. For more information on the research or to register for a virtual session, go to schatzcenter.org/wind/.