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Federal government wants wind turbine proposals for 2 new areas off Morro Bay

The potential for wind turbines floating off the Central Coast shoreline just got a little closer to becoming a reality.

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Management (BOEM) announced Wednesday morning that it will soon publish a call for information and nominations for two new areas within the proposed 399-square-mile Morro Bay offshore wind farm call area.

The Morro Bay call area previously encompassed 311 square miles when the first call for information and nominations were sent out in 2018.

The east and west extensions – as BOEM is formally calling the new call areas – encompass about 141 square miles. Part of the former Morro Bay call area is no longer being considered for offshore wind farm development.

The total 399-square-mile area is located about 17 to 40 miles offshore of Cambria and San Simeon, several miles northwest of Morro Bay.

Modifications to the original call area are largely due to an agreement made between the U.S. Department of Defense, Congressmen Salud Carbajal and Jimmy Panetta, BOEM, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Sanctuaries. The agreement was announced by several top Biden administration officials and Gov. Gavin Newsom on May 25.

BOEM also announced Wednesday morning that it will proceed with an environmental review of the Humboldt Wind Energy Area, which is located off the coast of Northern California. The environmental review is required under the National Environmental Policy Act and essentially means that the Humboldt area is one step further than the Morro Bay area to seeing offshore wind energy farms being developed.

“Today’s announcement builds on an earlier agreement between the White House, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Defense and the state of California to advance areas for offshore wind off the northern and central coasts of California,” said BOEM Director Amanda Lefton in a prepared statement. “If approved for offshore wind energy development, these areas could bring us closer to reaching this administration’s goal of deploying 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030.”

Central Coast state Sen. John Laird wrote in a statement sent to The Tribune Wednesday morning that BOEM’s announcement “is an important milestone” in the development of “clean, renewable energy.”

“The development of wind and other renewable energy sources is critical to addressing climate change and avoiding devastating impacts to our coast, state and nation,” Laird said in his statement.

BOEM wants public comment on proposed Morro Bay wind farm extensions

Once the revised Morro Bay call for information and nominations is published in the Federal Register on July 29, a 45-day public comment period will begin, running through Sept. 13. During that time, members of the public may comment on the new Morro Bay call area extensions, and wind turbine companies wishing to develop within the new areas may submit their nominations to BOEM.

After that process is complete, BOEM will conduct the required environmental review to examine how floating wind turbines in the 399-square-mile area could have environmental impacts to marine ecosystems, birds, ocean currents and more.

The next step in the process would be a lease sale auction, which is predicted to happen as soon as mid-2022.

It may take a few years after a lease is granted for wind turbines to actually be constructed in the Morro Bay call area as a company then has to go through an extensive planning and review process.

Although the wind energy farm would be located in federal waters, the Coastal Commission and California State Lands Commission will review some of the plans and activities that take place during the process.

Eleven companies sent BOEM nominations to develop a floating offshore wind energy farm in the 2018 Morro Bay call area as of April 2019.

Most of those companies wanted to build wind turbines in the entire 311-square-mile area. Many also wanted to develop another call area off the coast of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, but prospects of developing that call area have since been shelved by BOEM.

It is currently unclear how many companies will want to erect floating wind turbines in the extensions to that original Morro Bay call area. The new areas encompass about 141 square miles, or 90,025 acres.

Economic benefits, community doubts about the proposed project

Should the entire Morro Bay call area be developed with floating offshore wind turbines, an estimated 3 gigawatts of electricity could be produced at max production, according to BOEM. That’s enough to power about a million homes with non-emissions-producing electricity.

The potential for floating offshore wind turbines has largely been lauded as a much-needed investment in California’s renewable energy goal of 100% carbon-free energy by 2045.

Developing the massive offshore wind energy farm is expected to generate at least 650 good-paying jobs, with the potential for thousands more, and bring in about $262 million annually to the Central Coast economy.

A Cal Poly study found that wind energy off the Central Coast would produce clean energy when consumers need it most. That’s because it has the potential to supplement onshore clean energy sources, like solar panels, because offshore winds are typically stronger and more consistent in the evening hours as the sun sets.

But some local community members are cautious about the proposed offshore wind energy farm.

For one, residents of Cambria and San Simeon worry about their pristine coastal views being impacted by the wind turbines, which would give off a red glow at night from their safety lights and look like blips on the horizon during the daytime, according to a BOEM analysis. However, those 2019 visual simulations use a 1,000-megawatt project, one third the size of the proposed 3-gigawatt project.

Local fishermen have told The Tribune that they’re “basically screwed” should the massive wind energy farm be built because it may cut out 399 square miles of viable, healthy fishing grounds.

Representatives from the multi-million-dollar Morro Bay fishing industry said they have adamantly opposed the offshore wind farm development.

Officials from the California Coastal Commission and BOEM, as well as Congressman Salud Carbajal, have all said they are actively working to engage the local fishing industry to figure out how the wind turbines may be built in a way that is amenable to their needs. In the end, that may mean local fishermen are simply compensated for the extra costs generated to travel to farther fishing grounds or the lost revenue.

The call for information means that this is the public’s opportunity to weigh in on the extensions to the Morro Bay call area and provide feedback to BOEM.

“While we are still in the initial stages of BOEM’s leasing process, today’s announcement reflects years of working with ocean users, tribal governments and local, state and federal agencies to obtain the best available information to reduce potential conflicts,” said BOEM Acting Pacific Region Director Thomas Liu in a prepared statement. “The Morro Bay call and Humboldt environmental assessment offer important opportunities to further solicit feedback from tribes, ocean users and stakeholders.”