A public comment period ends Monday night at midnight on plans to lease areas off California’s coast to wind energy development. Proposed for areas of the ocean roughly 20 to 30 miles offshore, the wind farms would consist of dozens of connected floating turbines generating electricity, conveyed to shore—and the energy grid—via a seafloor cable.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management—also known as BOEM—is an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior, and is in charge of leasing America’s federal coastal waters, whether it’s for petroleum oil and gas exploration, or renewable energy projects.
After consulting with the military and various industry stakeholders, BOEM and the California Energy Commission have released draft maps of potential lease areas off California’s coast that possess the necessary conditions to support large-scale wind farms.
Offshore of the state’s roughly 840 miles of coastline, there are just three areas where the wind blows with enough consistency and speed for such farms. Two are off San Luis Obispo County’s coast, one near the soon-to-be-decommissioned Diablo Canyon Power Plant and the other off the coast of Morro Bay. The third is Humboldt County near Eureka.
“There's limited places offshore California where you can actually do offshore wind energy,” said Jean Thurston, a BOEM renewable energy specialist focused on the Pacific region. “You need greater than seven meters per second wind speed for it to be economically viable, for a developer to even want to put a project in. So looking at the cost-benefit analysis, that's the kind of the cut-off point.”
Thurston said other considerations in figuring out locations for offshore wind farm are water depth, and finding areas that aren’t already located in a marine sanctuary. In the end, just six percent of California’s offshore areas has the right conditions. And besides the technical needs, there’s other users and uses of those marine areas to factor in.
“We want to pick areas that minimize conflicts,” Thurston said. “Now we know—looking at all the areas offshore that are viable—there's no area that’s going to be conflict free. So we're trying to look at areas that have the least amount of conflict,”
Groups wary of setting up offshore wind farms are the fishing and shipping industries, and those who say wind farms will harm marine mammals like migrating whales, due to dangers of entanglement and undersea noise.
"There's so much more we don't know than what we do know," said Benjamin Ruttenberg, a Cal Poly marine biology professor and director of the university's Center for Coastal Marine Sciences in Avila Beach, where BOEM funds research. He says the impacts on marine life will need to be studied thoroughly.
"The main factors that we think that are going to be the biggest concerns are going to be the marine mammals, seabirds, fish populations, [and] critters that hang out on the bottom," Ruttenberg said.
Offshore wind farms are new territory for California. West Coast waters get very deep, very close to shore. Although turbines are built into shallow seabeds elsewhere, here they would have to be floating, tethered in place by chains reaching down as deep as 3,000 feet, and held in place by giant anchors. Some projects could have up to a hundred turbines, spread over miles upon square miles of ocean.
For the area off Morro Bay, local fishermen have made an agreement with one of the wind energy developers, said Eric Endersby, Morro Bay’s harbor director.
“The fishing community has supported, the fishing community has signed onto an agreement with Castle Wind, the proponent that's pushing one of the projects right now,” Endersby said. “But it will impact the fishing community because it's basically taking some fishing grounds off limits, where they won't be able to fish, and so they've mitigated that, and the fishermen are happy with what they've agreed with.”
The search for possible offshore wind energy development areas started with a proposal from the company Trident Winds, now known as Castle Wind. That application kicked off a whole planning process with the state and federal government to look at offshore wind energy in California.
“Instead of just responding to requests site-specifically, why don't we as a state look at where the wind resources are and where the need is and where the most environmentally-sensitive areas are to avoid, and really think about where we would want offshore wind if we were to approve a project,” said Kristen Hislop, marine conservation program director with the Environmental Defense Center.
The EDC has been active in the process of figuring out where offshore leases should go, from an environmental stance. Staff have submitted ideas on the types of research, studies and monitoring efforts necessary to protect the marine environment.
“We haven't taken a stance on whether or not we're for or against offshore wind [development], but we but we are very interested in being part of the process and figuring out if we can help influence in a positive way where these things might be sited,” Hislop said. “And also determine if it's the best way to get renewable energy for the state.”
In mid-December, BOEM held an open house in San Luis Obispo to answer questions from the public. A few dozen people showed up to speak to staff from various agencies involved in the decision making process, and to submit public comment. Frank Pendleton does mapping for BOEM.
“Someone knows a lot about the birds in the area, someone knows a lot about the whales, we want to hear from them,” Pendleton said. “[If someone knows] a lot about who fishes where in the area...we’ve opened the comment period now, and that's what we want to hear from folks—how this could affect them.”
Public comments can be submitted here until January 28, 2019.
This story was originally published on January 9, 2019 on KCBX.org.