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Federal government to hold lease sale for West Coast offshore wind projects, including Morro Bay

A map of the three lease areas for the Morro Bay Wind Energy Area.
Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
A map of the three lease areas for the Morro Bay Wind Energy Area.

The West Coast’s offshore wind projects will move one step closer tomorrow, when the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) auctions off leases for five areas of ocean planned to hold floating wind turbines.

The bidding starts at 7a.m. Pacific on December 6, kicking off the process for building wind projects which are planned to produce more electricity than Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. The auction could take two days to reach a conclusion and settle on five winning bidders.

The three Morro Bay areas (80,062 acres, 80,418 acres and 80,418 acres each) and two Humboldt areas (63,338 acres and 69,031 acres) totaling 373,268 acres, will be auctioned off. Forty-three bidders have qualified and ponied up the $5 million bid deposit to participate.

Incentives for bidders

The lease sale will consider not just the dollar amount of bids, but also how companies propose to use bidding credits. These are incentives to implement measures like workforce training, supply chain development, Community Benefit Agreements (CBAs) and more.

One of the incentives is a 20 percent credit for committing to workforce training and supply chain development.

Another credit is for CBAs, of up to a five percent credit for a Lease Area Use Community Benefit Agreement and five percent for a General Community Benefit Agreement. These measures are meant to address the impact of offshore wind development on groups like indigenous tribes, fishing communities and other stakeholder groups.

According to BOEM, the Lease Use Area Use CBAs would be between the lessee and one of these groups “whose use of the geographic space of the Lease Area, or whose use of resources harvested from that geographic space, is directly impacted by the Lessee’s potential offshore wind development.”

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

The other type of community benefit agreement is called a General CBA, which would be with communities, tribes, or stakeholder groups who could be affected by potential impacts on the marine, coastal, or human environment.

Eric Endersby, Morro Bay’s harbor director, said those credits could help the waterfront.

“We are the closest port to the Morro Bay area, and we are a protected port, so it makes sense for the operations and maintenance boats to be coming and going out of Morro Bay, and we’d like to see that activity here in the bay. [It would] be a lot of fuel sales, a lot of high dollar jobs, high skilled jobs. The wire is coming into Morro Bay, obviously, the cable, through the grid system, so there’ll be that aspect to it, but we see sort of a revitalization of our working waterfront," Endersby said.

Cooperating with other users of the ocean

Companies that win leases for offshore wind development would not be the only ones using the ocean. The leases require consideration and cooperation with other users, from the local fishing industry to the Department of Defense. The Morro Bay wind areas are also adjacent to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the proposed Chumash Heritage NMS.

Violet Sage Walker is the chair of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council. In an op-ed for The San Luis Obispo Tribune, Sage Walker said, “The Northern Chumash Tribal Council advocates for marine conservation, equitable mitigation measures and fair community benefits. We believe offshore wind must coexist and cooperate with marine protections, and we see this as a unique opportunity for a collaborative effort, not a combative one.”

The various Chumash tribes are not the only indigenous groups who will be affected by offshore wind development. The Salinan tribe on the Central Coast and the Yurok Tribe in Northern California are just some of the tribes with ancestral claims to the areas involved.

Full details are in the Final Sale Notice.

Federal and state government involvement

The federal government's West Coast Floating Offshore Wind projects are part of the Biden administration’s goal to expand renewable energy production. The goal is to deploy 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030, and at least 25 gigawatts of onshore renewable energy by 2025.

At the state level, California has set a target of 5 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2030 and 25 gigawatts by 2045. Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant’s two units combined produce far less than that, at 2.2 gigawatts.

Logistical uncertainties

There are about 1,300 offshore wind turbines projected to be installed in the West Coast's wind projects. The turbines will be about 1,100 feet tall on a base 425 feet wide. The size of the turbines presents logistical problems, including the question of how to move the assembled turbines from the manufacturing facility into the water. While the timeframe is not yet certain, it could take two weeks or longer to tow them out to the ocean sites where they will be tethered.

The size and complications of constructing the turbines and setting them in place presents risks that are difficult to evaluate and insure.

Though there are other projects around the world that can offer some insights, there is no precedent for a wind project in California’s depths at around 3,000 feet.

The Morro Bay Wind Energy Area is adjacent to the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary.

One major concern is the project's potential impacts on marine mammals. The chains tethering the turbines to sea floor anchors could put species like whales and dolphins at risk by catching drifting fishing gear and ensnaring them.

Humboldt County has already received a grant for $10.5 million to renovate its facilities into the Humboldt Bay Offshore Wind Heavy Lift Marine Terminal. It will be capable of handling large heavy cargo vessels, offshore wind floating platform development and integration and decommissioning.

The Regional Economic Action Coalition (REACH) and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo estimate the Central Coast wind area alone could create around 15,000 new jobs.

Despite the project's unknowns, Morro Bay Harbor Director Endersby said he hopes the changes will ultimately benefit communities in Morro Bay, including the fishing industry.

“They are going to lose fishing grounds, no doubt. There’s going to be impacts. But I’m hopeful there will be a net positive for the industry and they can gain on this whole process," Endersby said.

Christine Heinrichs writes about coastal issues from her home in Cambria, and has lived on the Central Coast since 1990. She earned her degree in journalism from the University of Oregon and has written for many magazines throughout her career.
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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