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California’s first offshore wind project has Morro Bay fishermen worried

Photo by Kathryn Barnes KCRW
A view of the Morro Bay harbor from Black Hill. The wind farm will be located northwest of the city and impact local fishermen.

Fishermen in Morro Bay are about to get a much taller neighbor than the ancient volcanic mound that stands like a giant at the tip of the harbor.

Wind turbines are coming.

“These things are as big as skyscrapers,” says Chris Pavone, who’s among roughly 120 fishermen who trap, troll, and drop lines off Morro Bay and Avila Beach.

Credit Photo by Kathryn Barnes/KCRW.
“We want fishing to continue into the future after we're gone,” says Alan Alward (right), along with fellow fishermen Chris Pavone (left) and Tom Hafer (center).

He’s worried about what could become the first offshore wind farm on the West Coast. Approved by the Biden administration, the project would bring roughly 200 floating turbines into the open ocean off the Central Coast.

It’s a huge leap towards California’s goal of 100% clean electric power by 2045, but fishermen say a 399-square mile wind farm will become another place they can’t fish, in addition to dozens of marine protected areas already out of bounds to them.

“If you saw a map of where you can't fish, it's like a mosaic on the ocean,” says Pavone. “For me to make a really good day and make money, I'm driving an hour, hour and a half in my boat.”

The turbines will sit 17 to 30 miles off the coast of southern Big Sur. Industry watchers anticipate they’ll be taller than the Seattle Space Needle at roughly 700 feet, but from shore they’ll look like faint lines poking out of the horizon.

The federal government granted permission to turn the Morro Bay call area into a wind farm. The Diablo Canyon call area did not receive permission. Courtesy of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

The turbine platforms will be floating in waters more than 3,000 feet deep, deeper than turbines have ever known.

A visual simulation of what the turbines might look like from Piedras Blancas. Courtesy of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

“From the surface, you might not even know that it's floating,” says Walt Musial, who studies future technologies in the offshore wind industry at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “It's supported by a buoyant foundation, and moored with cables to the bottom with anchors.”

He says this project, along with a second project that got the green light near Humboldt County, will create the beginnings of a critical mass for the offshore wind industry.

“Then California can think about having offshore wind become a significant contributor to its zero carbon policies,” says Musial.

The need for this energy becomes more important when you factor in the decommissioning of nearby Diablo Canyon, the last nuclear power plant in California and a major energy supplier for the state. PG&E says it will discontinue its power operations in 2024 and 2025.

This wind farm is expected to power about 1 million homes — that’s more electricity than what Diablo is currently supplying California,

But the nuclear power plant’s closure will impact more than 1,000 workers.

“The transition away from nuclear energy is a big impact to our region. It's about 1,500 direct jobs and 3,000 contracted jobs,” says Melissa James, the CEO of REACH, a local economic action coalition.

The good news, she says, is nuclear power workers can be trained to become wind power workers. “We have an energy workforce that will be willing and ready and able to move into and support the growth of this new industry.”

A recent Cal Poly study commissioned by REACH found the wind farm could generate at least 650 jobs and about $250 million in annual economic impacts.

Fishermen are concerned that while the wind industry makes money, the fishing industry will lose money.

Pavone worries that getting displaced from another section of the ocean will lead to more fuel costs, fewer fish brought to market, and ultimately, more people dissuaded from becoming fishermen at all.

Credit Photo by Kathryn Barnes/KCRW.
Fishermen along the Central Coast catch rock cod, albacore tuna, salmon, prawns, swordfish, black cod and more.

And it’s not just the wind farm itself that could disrupt the ocean. There’s also talk of a new deep sea port going in along the Central Coast to transport and service these turbines. It’ll add more local jobs, but Pavone says the construction of a port will disturb the underwater habitat.

“I know the fish would be scared and they would move,” he says. “When they show up here with their big boats and their rumbling engines and their sonar pinging the bottom and trenching the bottom, that screws everything up, sometimes for years. ”

So far, only one prospective wind developer has met with the fishing industry to address these impacts. Castle Wind has formed a Mutual Benefit Agreement to minimize the impacts of the project on the members of the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization and the Port San Luis Commercial Fishermen’s Association.

Credit Photo by Kathryn Barnes/KCRW.
Some local residents aren’t happy about the proposed wind farm. This sign that reads “Help Protect Morro Bay” was set up along the road.

“We’ll create a fund for the benefit of the fishermen, and effectively it becomes a revenue sharing agreement,” says Alla Weinstein, the CEO of Castle Wind. If her company wins the bid for a lease, she’s prepared to compensate each individual fisherman and set up a fund that the fishermen associations can manage and use at their discretion for things like boat improvement, scholarships, and infrastructure repairs.

Pavone and the other fishermen are happy with this agreement, and hope it’ll act as a model to use with other developers.

The federal government is expected to open the bidding auction next year. The project will likely get split into several parcels and leased to multiple wind developers.

Credit Photo by Kathryn Barnes/KCRW.
The city of Morro Bay and Vistra Corporation have reached a tentative agreement that would set the foundation for the world’s largest battery storage facility. It would stand where the city’s now defunct power plant is, home to a trio of smokestacks that have been an iconic part of the Morro Bay skyline since the 1950s.

The turbines will position the Central Coast to lead the country in renewable energy. San Luis Obispo is already home to Topaz Solar Farm, one of the world’s largest solar farms, and Morro Bay could soon host the world’s largest lithium battery.  

In the meantime, fishermen like Pavone are enjoying their quiet harbor while they can, and making sure they keep their seat at the table when construction begins.

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