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Public comment on Morro Bay Offshore Wind Energy Area reveals locals’ concerns, hopes for project

Randol White/KCBX
The local fishing industry in Morro Bay has concerns about an offshore wind farm.

A potential renewable energy game-changer for California could be coming soon to the Central Coast: floating offshore wind turbines in a 376-square-mile area of ocean off of San Luis Obispo County’s coastline.

The City of Morro Bay and other local officials support the project for potentially establishing an offshore wind industry in the area, creating jobs and a new clean energy source.

Some local residents and advocates are expressing support, while others are voicing concerns about what they see as potential environmental drawbacks.

The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) expects to issue three leases for offshore wind turbines, and the sale could happen this year. The entire area could generate about 10 to 15 million megawatt-hours of electricity per year, which BOEM says is enough to power more than a million homes.

After publishing a draft environmental assessment for the site survey of the proposed wind project, BOEM held several virtual meetings for public comment, calling on the public to attend.

During one of those public meetings, BOEM biologist Lisa Gilbane stressed that the project is not set in stone.

A map of the Morro Bay Wind Energy Area.
A map of the Morro Bay Wind Energy Area.

“We’re not considering a construction operation plan, and so we’re not considering steel in the water," Gilbane said. "And the reason is we’re not ready, we don’t have the information to be able to have that discussion at a level that’s needed.”

Gilbane said that like the public, there are several issues BOEM is thinking about regarding this project.

“There’s a lot of considerations when thinking about ocean usage for lease issuances. We have a suite of biological concerns in thinking about habitat and species, there’s physical air quality, water quality and hazards," Gilbane said.

BOEM’s draft environmental assessment analyzed the potential impacts of site assessments, which could include placing sampling equipment and meteorological buoys in the area. It found that there would be minor impacts on the environment and wildlife, if any, from that process.

Although, that doesn’t make any determination of the overall impacts of siting, construction and operation of wind turbines. BOEM says that process will come later.

But some speakers during BOEM’s public comment sessions used that opportunity to voice their concerns about the project’s potential negative effects more generally.

Claudia Harmon Worthen is the president of the nonprofit Beautify Cambria. One of their goals is to have Cambria certified as an International Dark Sky Community, which means light pollution in the area is limited. She worries an offshore wind farm could jeopardize that.

“Lights out on the horizon will negatively affect our pristine, dark ocean. So this is very important, it really truly needs to be addressed very carefully," Worthen said.

On the issue of air and water pollution, many argued a renewable energy source like offshore wind would be much less harmful than a fossil fuel facility. Laura Deehan with the nonprofit Environment California said environmental disasters like the 2021 Orange County oil spill wouldn’t be a concern with an offshore wind farm.

“The air pollution that people are suffering, the impacts of devastating oil spills which we just saw once again hit our coastline this past year, are all examples of the reality that we have to move as swiftly as we can away from a dependence on dirty fossil fuel energy to power our lives," Deehan said.

Another major concern locally is the wind farm’s potential impact on marine life and the local fishing industry. Cheri Hafer with the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization advocated for a kind of trigger to stop construction or operation of the potential wind project if it’s found to affect fish populations and therefore the number of fish caught, known as “landings.”

Thomas Wilmer

“There should be some trigger if our landings are significantly decreased," Hafer said.

People in the fishing industry have also expressed concern about a potential seaport that could be constructed somewhere on the Central Coast in the next few years. It would service the offshore wind turbines and generate jobs in the area, but some worry about potential impacts to marine life.

One potential wind farm lessee, Castle Wind LLC, has already signed a mutual benefits agreement with the Morro Bay and Port San Luis Commercial Fishermen’s Organizations to minimize potential harm to the fishing industry if they win a lease.

Another environmental concern around sea life has to do with marine mammals: especially gray, blue and humpback whales found off the Central Coast.

It’s not entirely clear what effect the construction and operation of offshore wind farms has on whales, but local environmentalist Leslie Purcell cited the numbers of whale deaths in the Santa Barbara Channel as an example of what ship traffic can do to the mammals.

“I lived in Ventura when we had a lot of whales over time being hit by ships going through the channel," Purcell said. "This is a real consideration in terms of siting, and I wonder how their migratory and their feeding patterns are going to be assessed and how any serious impacts can be avoided in terms of even the construction of the site, as well as the actual siting of the wind turbines.”

BOEM has extended the public comment period to May 16, citing “stakeholder request.” Anyone can submit a comment online at regulations.gov, or send it in by mail to BOEM’s office in Camarillo. Comments must be sent by 11:59p.m. on Monday, May 16.

This report is made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation of San Luis Obispo County.

Benjamin Purper was News Director of KCBX from May of 2021 to September of 2023. He came from California’s Inland Empire, where he spent three years as a reporter and Morning Edition host at KVCR in San Bernardino. Dozens of his stories have aired on KQED’s California Report, and his work has broadcast on NPR's news magazines, as well. In addition to radio, Ben has worked as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer.
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