The state’s biggest environmental groups, local tribes and area fishermen are all blasting a small pilot offshore wind project proposed along the Vandenberg Space Force Base coast.
While acknowledging the need to address climate change and move quickly toward carbon neutrality, the parties are raising concerns with a plan that would be the first offshore wind project in California waters.
For their part, developers say the demonstration project could test the floating technology expected to be used on a much larger scale in the next few years.
Responding to comments that a pilot was not in the best interests of the state, one of the company’s representatives, Ideol’s Bruno Geschier, said there is “not one place in the world where offshore wind has happened without there being first a pilot project being built.” Both developers – Ideol and Cierco – are European, where offshore wind has taken off.
With no offshore wind projects built off California, proponents say it just makes sense that a very small-scale project be tested first before the Central Coast sea is filled with this new technology. California needs the 24-hour power that offshore wind can generate.
On a 3-0 vote, the California State Lands Commission approved a final EIR for the project on Oct. 22 to study the potential impacts of the two wind-power companies competing for the right to build a two to four turbines. Commissioners were careful to note that allowing the study to go forward does not mean approval is at hand.
Unlike the much larger offshore wind project proposed off the Morro Bay coast, these applications are in state-managed waters, where the State Lands Commission has jurisdiction.
They each plan to generate 40 to 60 megawatts of wind power compared to 3,0000 megawatts discussed about 20 to 30 miles off the coast of Morro Bay. The same groups have carefully avoided blunt criticism of the larger offshore projects that President Biden has announced recent support for along all U.S. coastal waters.
The pilot project would be located off the base’s 42-mile-long coastline, which might be considered untouched oceanfront and a rich wildlife habitat. On the other hand, the same place is an active military base that fires rockets regularly into space a few feet from the same oceanfront. It is both a natural landscape and an industrialized military zone and has been since 1941.
The tension between these two realities is clear.
Opposition to pilot wind project off Vandenberg
So far, a draft report of the wind proposal included plenty of concerns.
Criticism in the draft EIR includes tough words like those from Tom Hafer, president of Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization, who said, “This is a bad idea, a really bad idea, you don’t want to do this.”
Like other critics, Hafer points out that the pilot wind farm is in shallow waters while the pending bigger project is in deep water far off the coast.
”The biology, geology, wind and fisheries are totally different,” he said. “We think this area is too valuable to the local fishing industry for an experiment that doesn’t mean anything.”
A combined environmental group letter that includes the Audubon Society, SurfRider and the Sierra Club among others, concludes that “Our organizations believe that the two proposed projects … that have been submitted to the CSLC are not appropriately sited and will have significant impacts, and are therefore not in the best interests of the state.”
The groups point out that “numerous species of importance have ‘nearshore affinity’ making it likely they will have more of an impact on biological resources than alternative sites farther offshore.”
Adding its voice, the Nature Conservancy wrote that the coastline along Vandenberg AFB and Point Arguello are generally undeveloped, relatively undisturbed, and have high biodiversity and intact land-sea connectivity. The natural diversity and ecological intactness of the beaches and the coastal terrace make this part of the coast relatively “wild.”
Then there are fears ”these turbines will be massive bird killers. Bird mortality will be a concern no matter where OSW projects are located, but will likely be less so the farther offshore they are located,” the Nature Conservancy said. Others fear for the sea turtles.
Another stakeholder, the Northern Chumash Tribal Council says it has “learned that the technologies are not available to build and sustain these wind generation farms. No one has built one that works on our West Coast. NCTC does not support this proposed project in its current form.”
A Lands Commission staff report summarized the tribes’ position: ”Generally, consulting tribes expressed strong opposition to the proposed projects based on the cultural significance of this stretch of the coast, both on- and offshore. In addition to the potential physical disturbance or destruction of physical tribal cultural resources including burials, villages and other sites containing cultural materials, the tribes noted that the proposed project areas encompass a sacred spiritual area known as the Western Gate, where souls move from this realm to the land of the dead. Consulting tribes also expressed concern that the proposed projects would benefit private companies at the expense of the environment and the Chumash people.”
Despite all the negative comments, the Lands Commission board approved hiring a consultant to do a final EIR to be prepared before any lease of state waters is approved or not, likely next year. The agency has been studying the applications since 2019.
Base would get power
Perhaps unappreciated and never discussed by the commission is the fact the developers plan to generate wind energy to help power the military installation.
The power generated from the turbines is intended to feed directly to Vandenberg, as well as interconnecting to the broader California electricity grid.
One of the developers of the project says the purpose of the development is to “provide energy security and resiliency to VSFB in support of the missions of the 30th Space Wing and the Air Force Space Command to, respectively, “provide robust, relevant, and efficient spaceport and range capabilities for the nation,” and to “provide resilient and affordable space capabilities for the Air Force, Joint Force, and the nation.”
According to Ideol, the turbines could proved 20 megawatts of renewable electricity to Vandenberg. Also, the pilot could “serve as a test facility for multiple branches of the DOD in their evaluation of the potential impacts of future commercial-scale offshore wind facilities on their unique missions, and more broadly on military operations and readiness along the U.S. West Coast.”
So if the power is needed by the base – why don’t we hear from the Department of Defense?
The base has been working in recent years to become more energy self-sustaining and less dependent on the vulnerable PG&E grid. It added a 28-megawatt solar farm a few years ago that handles about 35% of the base’s energy needs. There are plans for a battery storage project on the base, too.
Does Vandenberg officials want offshore wind to be part of their power mix? The Department of Defense has yet to formalize any agreement with the wind power developers, but DOD representative Steve Chung says they are working on such an agreement. No date has been provided.
Further, Ideol says the pilot would “serve as a test facility for multiple branches of the DOD in their evaluation of the potential impacts of future commercial-scale offshore wind facilities on their unique missions, and more broadly on military operations and readiness along the U.S. West Coast.”
Already, the base has signaled it wants to add battery storage units to supplement the solar plant. DOD recently awarded a $500,000 grant to study adding more battery units.
“The solar array is capable of generating more electricity during daylight hours than Vandenberg can use,” the base’s energy consultant Bill Toman said. “Because we are currently prohibited from exporting excess generated power to PG&E’s electric grid, some of the solar panels and their associated inverters have to be turned off in order for the solar generation to exactly match the base’s electric demand – a process called ‘curtailment.’”
Because the current solar power contract requires that a minimum amount of electricity be consumed by Vandenberg each year to avoid curtailment, one solution to maximize consumption is storing excess solar energy in utility-scale batteries, which can then provide power into the early evening hours after sundown.
In addition, battery storage on base will provide mitigation for California wildfire risk management policies that now authorize PG&E to shut off the region’s electric transmission grid in the event of dangerous weather conditions.
With an opportunity to add significant new 24-hour power capacity at its doorstep, Vandenberg (DOD) approval of the pilot project may be a key factor as the state considers a lease, particularly if the developers can figure out ways to mitigate the negative impacts predicted by opponents. That should become clearer as the final EIR on the pilot projects is completed.
Developers hint at more to come off this part of the coast. Wind speeds off of Point Arguello and Poin. Conception are more impressive than off Morro Bay and expansion in this sector could happen here too, far beyond these first pilot projects.
Vandenberg offshore wind project likely first to deploy
The other factor is timing.
Despite strong federal and state support for a large-scale project off Morro Bay, the reality is that wind power at sea is likely still a decade off.
Vandenberg’s construction, however, could start in the first quarter of 2023 and produce power for the base as soon as 2024.
By contrast, Castle Wind CEO Alla Weinstein expects that even after auction results are settled, it will take perhaps seven years to go through the planning and permitting issues, with an extended construction period to follow.
“You’re probably looking at a decade from next year” – 2032 – “until the electrons from offshore wind units will go into the grid,” Weinstein said recently.
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