Competing plans afoot for offshore utility-scale wind farm

Dec 27, 2016

In December the federal agency that decides what kind of energy development takes place in our nation’s coastal waters issued a guidebook to understanding how renewable energy projects get approved and built. It’s a wonky topic of particular interest to the Central Coast, as firms jockey to build an offshore wind farm near Morro Bay. 

If Alla Weinstein succeeds in her quest, someday there will be a floating wind farm far out to sea from the beaches of Morro Bay and Cambria, off Point Estero.

Weinstein is the founder of Trident Winds, a company aiming to lease a 70,000-acre area of the Pacific Ocean from the federal government to build an offshore power plant. A plant powered by the wind. She said the technology for making turbines that float in deep oceanic waters hasn’t been available, until now.

“You can start now thinking about developing offshore wind, off the coast of California,” Weinstein said in a recent phone interview with KCBX.

Why build a windmill farm on the ocean and not on terra firma? One reason is that wind blowing across the ocean’s surface tends to flow at higher sustained speeds than on land, says the Bureau of Ocean Management - also called BOEM - making turbines more efficient. BOEM is a federal agency, under the Department of the Interior, that manages offshore energy development. It issues commercial leases for the coastal waters and seabed to oil and gas companies, and now, companies that want to develop renewable energy systems, like Trident Winds.

“The state of California was moving to 50 percent renewables, it all kinda led to, okay, let’s look at the state of California, let’s look what makes sense to do and when,” Weinstein said. “And that’s how it all started...we've effectively initiated the process of developing offshore wind in the state of California."

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates the wind power in areas off the coast of California could technically generate one-and-a-half times the state’s total electrical consumption.

Visitors to the Central Coast wouldn’t be able to see Trident Winds’ proposed farm of 400-foot-tall windmills, up to 100 of them, blades spinning and turning turbine generators to create electricity. To not be visible from shore, the farm must be located at least 23 miles out, and Trident says its farm would be tethered to the ocean floor about 30 miles offshore. The individual platforms would be anchored in water as deep as 3,000 feet.

When looking for possible locations, the company sought an available lease area that is reliably windy and accessible to existing transmission lines. 

"We decided to focus on Morro Bay and reuse the transmission and the energy delivery infrastructure that’s already available in Morro Bay,” Weinstein said.

In Trident Winds’ plan, electricity generated by spinning offshore windmills is carried to land via an submarine transmission cable. That cable - once it hits the beach, snakes through an underground tunnel to the shorefront power plant that has defined Morro Bay since the ‘50s.

The tunnel is already there, it used to carry wastewater from the shuttered Morro Bay Power Plant out to discharge in the bay. It’s not the now-decommissioned power plant itself that Trident Winds wants. It’s access to adjacent equipment that connects to a PG&E substation and switchyard behind the plant. From there, the electricity flows to the statewide power grid. The city of Morro Bay owns the tunnel and connecting structures. The city and Trident Winds signed a memorandum of understanding agreement in October 2015.

Dynegy, the company that owns the Morro Bay Power Plant, shut it down for good in early 2014. And in October, Dynegy threw in the towel on possibly developing a wave energy - or hydrokinetic - park roughly three miles off the coast from the plant. It’s now for sale, says David Onufer, Dyengy’s communications manager.

“The Morro Bay facility remains mothballed and secure...as we continue to explore options for selling the site,” Onufer said.

After the federal government received Trident Winds’ application for an offshore lease, in August it issued a request for other companies interested in the same area for the same purpose.

One did come forward. Statoil, an energy company mainly owned by the Norwegian government, submitted a letter of interest. Currently the Bureau of Ocean Management is determining if and when there will be a competitive auction for the lease.