MORRO BAY, San Luis Obispo County – As sites for two massive wind farms are due to be leased soon off the California coast, conservationists are concerned whether renewable energy development can coexist with whales, seabirds and a lucrative fishing industry.
That’s partly what scientists who spent five days on the research vessel Fulmar last week were trying to find out. They set out along the Big Sur coast on a foggy morning to collect underwater sounds of baleen whales, porpoises, dolphins and other marine mammals that call the area home.
Their research is part of dozens of studies being done in anticipation of the lease of a 376-square mile site about 20 miles offshore Morro Bay for wind energy development. Last year, the Biden administration and Gov. Gavin Newsom approved the site and a smaller location off Eureka (Humboldt County) that will be up for auction at the end of this year. The sites have the potential to produce at least 4.6 gigawatts of energy per year, enough to power 1.6 million homes. The first projects of their kind on the West Coast, they fit into California’s ambition to derive all of its power from carbon-free sources by 2045.
Yet some conservation and fishing groups still have concerns about the possible consequences that could come from placing scores of floating turbines in a deep-sea environment. The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which is responsible for offshore energy and mineral development, is identifying the areas for leasing. The agency is funding a number of studies on potential environmental, economic and cultural implications of wind energy development, including on how seabirds could be injured by turbines, how much damage electric cables could do to the seafloor, and what the impact to Indigenous tribes and the fishing industry could be.
Once the sites are leased, the proposed development plans – including details on the number and size of turbines – would have to go through additional rounds of environmental reviews before construction could start, a multiyear process, said John Romero, public affairs officer at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
Among his administration’s climate goals, Biden aims to deliver 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy nationwide by 2030. On the East Coast, offshore wind farms have been built closer to land and drilled into the seafloor. In California, they will have to be constructed on floating platforms tethered to the ocean bottom.
“Because of the way the continental shelf is along our coast and where the wind resources are, these are going to be deepwater floating facilities,” said Ryan Walter, a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo professor who has been doing studies on the Morro Bay wind energy area for the Bureau. “That has its own challenges.”
He noted that the technology has already been used by the oil and gas industry and implemented in Europe, where floating wind farms sit out at sea. One issue is the extra cables connecting floating wind farms to the ocean floor, which could create a risk of entanglement for sea turtles or whales.
On the Fulmar, a 67-foot research vessel operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, scientists were using acoustic recording tools to survey and identify species of whales, porpoises and dolphins, many that aren’t often seen at the surface.
It was also a chance to record shipping traffic and other human activity before wind farms are built, said Lindsey Peavey Reeves, a scientist with National Marine Sanctuary Foundation who is working with NOAA. Whales, porpoises and dolphins use what’s called echolocation to send and receive sounds, helping them find their way to feeding grounds, serenade potential mates and avoid predators. Sound pollution from human sources can interfere.
“Our coastlines and ports are getting busier and busier,” Reeves said. “Morro Bay is no exception.”
The scientists first surveyed sea otter habitat, then continued farther offshore in search of more wildlife. Soon, someone spotted Dall’s porpoises, the fastest of all the whale and dolphin species, surfing the wake of the boat, and the team rushed to drop acoustic equipment attached to a drifting buoy into the water.
“The more recordings you get, the more you can start to parse the species apart,” said Shannon Rankin, a research fishery biologist with NOAA.
Their study is just one of many seeking to unearth how cultivating offshore energy in California waters could impact marine life. A study published by Frontiers in Energy Research in June modeled how offshore wind turbines could reduce upwelling, the process in which cold water and nutrients are brought up from the deep by seasonal winds. The researchers found upwelling near the Morro Bay wind energy area could be reduced by 10% to 15%.
“That’s huge,” said Ken Bates, a Eureka fisherman and president of California Fishermen’s Resiliency Association, a group formed in response to the proposed offshore wind energy development who Bates emphasized is not opposed to renewable energy. “Upwelling is what drives primary production on all these fishing grounds on the West Coast.”
Michael Stocker, director of the nonprofit organization Ocean Conservation Research in Lagunitas, thinks much more research needs be done before the wind energy areas are leased out.
“We are going to be transforming habitat that has been one way since the beginning of biological time,” he said.
Over five days on the Fulmar, the scientists observed dozens of humpback whales, along with more elusive species, including Northern right whale dolphins, which are unusual because they lack a dorsal fin, and a red-footed booby, a tropical seabird.
“The Big Sur coast is fortunately still a very wild part of our coastline,” said Reeves, and one, like most of the deep ocean, that is underexplored. “Everywhere on land and sea our environment is changing. So we need to get a handle on what our normal is right now.”
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