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The Biden administration on Tuesday announced plans to open areas of the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast to offshore wind development for the first time, supporting the construction of hundreds of large wind turbines to expand renewable energy and reduce the impacts of climate change.
The announcement, endorsed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, moves forward the prospect for wind farms in two areas about 20 miles off the coast of Morro Bay and Humboldt County. Turbines roughly 600 to 700 feet tall would be built on floating platforms because the water is too deep to anchor them to the sea floor. Combined, both sites would generate 4,600 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 1.6 million homes.
“California has a world-class offshore wind resource and it can play a major role in helping accelerate California’s and the nation’s transition to clean energy,” said White House climate adviser Gina McCarthy.
Specifically on Tuesday, the Department of Defense agreed to drop its opposition to the Morro Bay site, which had stalled plans for several years. In 2017, during the Trump administration, the Navy issued maps that would have put much of the ocean off the California coast off-limits to offshore wind development, saying the turbines and their undersea cables might conflict with training exercises.
Biden, however, has made offshore wind a key part of his environmental plans. He has said the turbines, which have operated in waters off Great Britain, Germany, Denmark, China, Belgium, the Netherlands and other countries for more than 20 years, can provide clean electricity and thousands of jobs for electricians, construction workers and other blue-collar professions on the East and West coasts of the United States.
On Tuesday, Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, said the turbines could be built in a 399-square mile area off Morro Bay and Cambria in ways that would not compromise the military. “We in the Department of Defense are committed to doing our part,” he said.
Tuesday’s announcement is not the final word, however. The Department of Interior had previously identified three locations as possible sites – Morro Bay, Humboldt County and waters off Diablo Canyon in San Luis Obispo County. The third site was not included in the locations that will now move forward into a leasing process. The White House said an auction to lease the sites to private companies would occur in “mid-2022.”
There is also sure to be opposition in some quarters. Commercial fishing interests raised concerns Tuesday.
“We believe it’s shortsighted,” said Mike Conroy, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, in San Francisco. “Floating offshore wind technology is unproven. It hasn’t been deployed on a large industrial scale yet. We have no idea what the environmental impacts will be off our coast.”
Conroy said fishing groups were not consulted by the White House or Newsom. He said he is concerned that some commercial fishing areas might be placed off limits. And he said it’s unclear what the effect would be on whales, sea birds and fish.
Environmental groups were generally supportive but cautious.
Pam Flick, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, said her organization “supports responsibly sited, developed and operated offshore wind” and would work with the state “to ensure that renewable energy development is informed by science-based conservation measures that consider imperiled wildlife, such as the humpback whales that seasonally migrate along our iconic coastline.”
The Morro Bay wind farm would be built between 20 miles to 30 miles off Morro Bay. It would route the electricity through a decommissioned power plant. The leading project proposed for the area, called Castle Wind, is a joint venture between Trident Winds, a Seattle company, and EnBW, the third largest utility company in Germany.
“We’re thrilled,” said Alla Weinstein, CEO of Castle Wind. “Everybody in the industry is excited today.”
Weinstein said after years of negotiations and adjustments, commercial fishermen in Morro Bay support her project, which would build 75 to 100 turbines. Other companies also could bid on the lease area off Morro Bay, which could support about 350 to 400 turbines, she said.
Biden has set a goal to build 30,000 megawatts of offshore wind in the United States by 2030. Doing that, the White House says, will generate $12 billion a year in capital investment projects and create more than 77,000 jobs. Hitting the target also will generate enough electricity to power more than 10 million American homes for a year, the administration says.
Gary Griggs, Distinguished Professor of Earth Sciences at UC Santa Cruz, said climate change is having increasing impacts on California’s wildfires, droughts, water shortages and heat waves. He said the wind turbines shouldn’t be visible from shore if they are built 20 miles or more out to sea.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Griggs said. “Northern Europe has thousands of offshore turbines. They have been in the water since the 1990s. We don’t need to go back to square one. Certainly there will be some effects, but look at what the effects are of 150 years of burning coal and oil and gas.”
Newsom said Tuesday he supports offshore wind. He included $20 million in the current state budget plan to streamline permitting. A state law signed by former Gov. Jerry Brown requires California to generate 100% of its electricity from zero-emission sources by 2045.
“This is one of our top priorities in terms of advancing our low-carbon, green growth future,” Newsom said, adding “If you want to be big you’ve got to be big in big things. This is a big deal.”
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