California has been a world leader in renewable energy for decades. It has more solar power and electric cars than any other state. And it built the first large wind farms in the nation more than 30 years ago.
But there’s one area where the Golden State has fallen far behind: offshore wind. From Scotland to Norway, China to Rhode Island, thousands of giant turbines generate clean energy in oceans around the world. But none is off California’s coast.
On Thursday, a coalition of labor, industry and environmental groups came together to change that, endorsing a new bill that would require California to set a target of constructing 3,000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2030, enough to power hundreds of thousands of homes, and 10,000 megawatts by 2040. Put in perspective, the larger target is nearly equal to the electrical generating capacity of all the large solar farms in California today and nearly double all the wind farms now operating on land in California.
“Our state has access to one of the world’s greatest sources of untapped energy – offshore wind,” said Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco. “The wind off California’s coast has enormous potential to meet clean energy goals, combat climate change and provide good paying jobs.”
Chiu’s bill, AB 525, would also require the California Energy Commission to draw up a plan by June 2022 detailing how to reach the target.
The three most likely locations for the first big farms are off San Luis Obispo County, off Morro Bay and the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, which will be decommissioned in 2025, and off Humboldt County.
In 2018, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the agency that also oversees offshore oil drilling in federal waters, released maps of those three proposed locations. The agency is expected to begin leasing the areas to wind-energy companies as soon as this year, or early 2022.
Chiu said his bill will create 14,000 construction jobs. It is key, he added, for California to reach its target of 60% renewable energy by 2030 and 100% carbon-free energy by 2045, both of which were put into law by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018. Chiu noted that offshore wind power also can help reduce the risk of electrical blackouts, because ocean winds blow at night, when solar power drops, making the grid more reliable.
Labor unions have already endorsed the bill.
“There are a lot of people out there who say no to everything,” said Robbie Hunter, president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, which represents 500,000 construction workers. “We’ve got to say yes to the things that work. And this technology absolutely works and will put Californians to work in a new industry providing clean technology to address our environmental issues.”
Hunter said he and other labor leaders have visited offshore wind farms in Scotland and Norway. Worldwide, there were 176 such farms in 2019, with dozens more in the planning stages.
Six other states – New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts and Virginia – already have set targets committing to offshore wind power. Four years ago, the first U.S. wind farm opened off Rhode Island.
But the technology in California faces major challenges. Although there are a handful of farms with floating turbines in Scotland and other areas, none has been built on the scale that California is considering. And while wind energy costs are coming down, the costs of projects off California’s coast are not yet fully understood.
Meanwhile, fishing groups have raised concerns about whether ocean turbines would reduce available areas for commercial fishing. Environmental groups have worried about the impacts on whales, birds and other marine life. The turbines can be 600 feet tall, although in all three areas under consideration by the federal government they would be located 20 to 30 miles offshore.
Because of the depth of the waters, turbines would almost certainly need to be built on floating platforms, moored to the ocean bottom, rather than fixed on the sea floor, as most other wind farms around the world are.
One group, Environment California, endorsed the bill Thursday, citing last year’s record wildfires, heat waves and blackouts.
“This last year has shown us what climate change is doing to our state and how severely it’s already testing our electricity grid,” said Laura Deehan, state director of Environment California. “Here in California we must do everything we can to fight back and serve as a model for the rest of the world.”
Most other environmental groups, however, are still wary. A proposal to build a wind farm 30 miles off Morro Bay and route the electricity through a decommissioned power plant there was introduced five years ago but is still pending approval. The project, called Castle Wind, is a joint venture between Trident Winds, a Seattle company, and EnBW, the third largest utility company in Germany.
“We’re generally supportive of renewable energy projects and offshore wind,” said Kristen Hislop, director of the marine conservation program at the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara. “But we want to see more information about where they are going and what they going to look like.”
Hislop said her group has not taken a position on Chiu’s bill, but she opposes its specific targets because they would take up a significant amount of ocean area. The bill estimates that 10,000 megawatts of wind power would take up about 1,200 square miles of ocean, or an area about 22% of the size of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
“It is a new technology and a new industry in California,” she said. “So we need to be careful.”
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