Plans to build arrays of offshore wind turbines and tie them into transmission infrastructure on the Central Coast could be torpedoed by an unlikely source: the U.S. Navy.
In response to growing interest in developing wind farms off California, the Navy in August published a map that shows where wind-energy projects and Navy and Marine Corps operations would overlap.
At least at first blush, the outlook doesn’t look good for San Luis Obispo County, where offshore power could be routed through the defunct Dynegy power plant and the PG&E substation in Morro Bay and possibly in the future through the soon-to-be-shuttered Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.
The Navy had been asked to weigh in on the wind-power idea by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). The agency serves as a gatekeeper for energy development 3 miles offshore and beyond and had received an unsolicited request for a commercial lease in January 2016 from Washington state-based Trident Winds, which hopes to build a 650-to 1,000-megawatt floating wind farm off Morro Bay, according to BOEM.
Although energy might be routed through the PG&E power plant, the wind farm itself would be farther north. A BOEM map shows the southern end of that proposed turbine area on the continental shelf west of Cambria, with the farm extending northward past Piedras Blancas, nearly to the Monterey County line.
The BOEM is working with the state of California on planning for potential leasing of tracts of ocean to use for offshore wind in what has now become a competitive process.
After receiving the request from Trident Winds, BOEM said it would accept additional offers as well, and it received another from Statoil Wind US LLC, whose parent firm is an oil and gas company based in Norway that has developed recent offshore wind energy projects in Europe and now off the East Coast of the United States.
The expectation in the past year was that BOEM was preparing for an auction of lease sites in 2017 as it was doing off the Atlantic Coast — signaling a green light for California offshore wind energy even though the Trump administration, less favorable to renewable energy, was now in charge.
Public meetings to advance the project were expected last summer as the process seemed to be plodding along with the rival companies facing off on the same site. But without a public announcement, BOEM asked the Navy its thoughts on the plans. The meetings never happened.
Wrench in the works
To the surprise of participants — the Navy map designated large areas of the Pacific off of Southern and Central California as a red zone, meaning the construction of wind farms in those sectors was “not compatible” with Navy operations.
The red zone on the map covers a huge swath of ocean from the Mexico border to just shy of Monterey Bay, about 36,000 square miles that the Navy says are “off limits” for ocean wind farms.
Other areas off Northern California are colored green on the map, while some smaller areas are colored yellow, meaning projects might be allowed under certain circumstances.
“Information provided by BOEM to the Department of Defense indicates that the unsolicited offshore wind proposal from Trident is for an area within Department of the Navy ‘wind exclusion’ areas off the coast of Central California,” Navy spokesman Lt. Ben Anderson said in early January. “These ‘wind exclusion’ areas are locations on the outer continental shelf where wind energy development will adversely impact Navy and/or Marine Corps testing, training and operational activities.”
Asked about the news, Morro Bay Harbormaster Eric Endersby says he has talked to Trident officials, who are well aware this has become a potential roadblock to their offshore wind project here.
“It looks like the Navy claims a much larger area than we had thought,” Endersby said.
The California coastline offers 112 gigawatts of technical offshore wind resource potential, according to Trident. That is more than 50 Diablo Canyons — about 1.5 times the state’s electric energy consumption based on 2014 Energy Information Administration figures.
If the Navy sticks to its guns and blocks wind-energy projects off the coast of both Southern and Central California, the winner may be Humboldt Bay, where BOEM has also studied potential wind projects, colored green on the Navy map.
BOEM has said that the wind off Humboldt and Crescent City blows 20 percent stronger than in the southern half of the state, giving the northern site a capacity advantage.
Southern projects, however, have a connectivity advantage.
“Grid connections and port services are more abundant and readily accessible in Southern California, which may facilitate near-term development in these areas,” a BOEM analysis says.
Meanwhile, a PG&E study found the cost to connect a Humboldt wind farm to the state grid system could run up to $1 billion.
Media report talks up Humboldt
So does the state’s North Coast have the advantage? A recent news report suggests that it may.
“In what could be a boon for the environment and the economy, Redwood Coast Energy Authority is in the early stages of developing a wind farm off the coast,” Eureka TV station News Channel 3 reported in December.
In October, the Redwood Coast Energy Authority agreed to a memorandum of understanding with Emeryville-based Principle Power to explore development of a floating wind farm.
“Humboldt County has actually got one of the best offshore wind resources in the entire country,” RCEA Executive Director Matthew Marshall said.
The fifteen turbines about 20 miles offshore could generate 120 megawatts of energy — or enough to power 70,000 homes.
The article says that “the abundance of offshore wind is only one of the factors working in Humboldt County’s favor. Another is the U.S. Navy’s opposition to similar developments in all waters south of San Francisco.”
Huge market potential
In recent years, sites off of the West Coast have become rivals to see who will gain the advantage of a new multi-billion-dollar industry.
The global offshore wind energy market was valued at $20.3 billion in 2016 and is expected to reach $57.2 billion in 2022, growing 16.2 percent from 2017 and 2022, according to a Zion Market Research report in September 2017.
Trident, in a filing with the California Energy Commission, estimated its project would add 6,000 long-term jobs with a gross domestic product impact of $39.7 billion during construction and $7.9 billion during operations over 25 years.
UC Berkeley policy analyst Rob Collier says that because of supply chain needs for floating wind technology, the industry will be a huge boon to wherever the staging area is for the mammoth 700-foot-tall turbines that could and should be built nearby, not imported from China or elsewhere, he argues.
Collier predicts that “California’s initial offshore wind farms are likely to be either in waters near the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, whose reactors are slated to close in 2024 and 2025, or offshore Humboldt and Del Norte counties, near a long-closed nuclear plant that is currently undergoing its decommissioning process. In either case, the result could be retraining and re-employment for some of the nuclear plant workers.”
A 2016 estimate published by The Tribune said that the dismantling of Diablo will cost an estimated $3.8 billion. If the infrastructure grid can still be used to carry offshore wind, it would preserve those transmission assets.
The recent CPUC decision to shutter Diablo by 2025 or sooner (Mothers for Peace recommends a shutdown in 2019-20) says a decision on dismantling or repurposing the infrastructure — as well as replacing the 2,200 megawatts of power — will be made later, with no timetable given.
That would include what happens to the three 500-kilovolt transmission lines, known as the Diablo Loop, that connect Diablo Canyon to the electrical grid by providing parallel transmission paths between two substations, Gates and Midway, in the Central Valley.
Clearly, offshore wind could connect here and/or potentially in Morro Bay, as Trident has proposed, depending on what happens with the Navy.
New Navy study in works
While things have been quiet since the map was published last summer, state Energy Commission staffer Scott Flint says he understands the Navy is doing a new “site-specific” study that might allow projects in some locations currently shown as red on the map. Further, he expects a public meeting to happen soon that could move the process along.
For her part, Trident Winds CEO Alla Weinstein says her company is not giving up.
In a phone interview, she echoed the Energy Commission spokesman’s view that the Navy is taking a second look at the compatibility map for offshore California.
“This is just the beginning of the competitive process,” Weinstein said, adding that in Virginia, “the Navy’s’ original map was all red too,” before negotiations allowed a project to move forward off the coast of Virginia Beach, where the Navy has a huge presence.