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Navy may oppose wind farms off Morro Bay — but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen

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The dream of Morro Bay as a new hub of offshore renewable energy production in California could be over before it even gets its sea legs — or it could just be ramping up.

The Navy is expected to make an announcement in the coming weeks on whether it will support fields of 700-foot floating wind turbines off certain areas of the California coast.

State and San Luis Obispo County leaders say they’ve been informed the Navy will likely recommend against building potential wind farms off the coast of Morro Bay and Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, something that could effectively sink hopes for the North Coast to be a new hub of renewable energy.

Despite this, those same leaders said they don’t believe the project is dead in the water just yet.

“We always knew to some degree that that could be a little bit of a heavy lift,” Third District Supervisor Adam Hill said in a phone interview with The Tribune on Thursday evening. “Yeah, they definitely have some areas that are not going to be suitable for wind — but then there are some areas that I think they could probably be persuaded on.”

A request for comment from Navy representatives was not returned Thursday evening.

Navy maps

The Navy released a map in August 2017 that designated 36,000 miles of the Southern and Central California coast — including Morro Bay — as a red zone where wind turbine developments would hinder the military organization’s operations.

Since then, the Navy has conducted a “site-specific” study that was expected to open up some of the no-go areas from its map, so they could be developed, according to a previous Tribune report.

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It looks like that might not include San Luis Obispo County’s shores.

A representative for Carbajal said the congressman’s office was unofficially told by Navy officials that they plan to recommend against wind development along San Luis Obispo County’s coast.

In a news release, Carbajal said he decided to host a meeting with local stakeholders and Navy representatives on Thursday to discuss how that decision could impact the region.

“I felt the conversation needed to continue locally, so that our community has the opportunity to directly engage with the Navy on their updated mapping,” Carbajal said in a statement.

“Today’s discussion looked to find opportunities within the challenges the Navy has outlined to take into account our renewable energy goals in light of the impending closure of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, as well as ocean area required for military training exercises.”

Carbajal, an advocate of making the Central Coast a renewable energy hub once Diablo Canyon shuts down in 2025, said offshore wind development “is one component of a multi-pronged strategy to designate the Central Coast a renewable energy hub, by attracting new businesses that provide good-paying jobs in our community.”

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Third District Supervisor Adam Hill, Congressman Salud Carbajal and Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham meet with Department of Defense officials regarding the Navy’s concerns about offshore wind development in San Luis Obispo County. Courtesy of Adam Hill

Bipartisan opportunity

Hill, who was in attendance at Carbajal’s meeting, said the Navy was understandably protective of the swaths of ocean where they conduct training and testing.

“We’ve known this before that there is a lot of testing in those waters, a lot of things that are critical to national defense,” he said. “We don’t expect or want to overcome national security issues; but I do think they can see some potential opportunities in that area.”

Hill said he thinks some “political pushing” from local leaders, especially Carbajal and Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham — who was also in attendance at the meeting — could convince the Department of Defense to concede more of the ocean area for development.

“I think we are all on the same page,” he said. “The clout of a member like Salud Carbajal ... could make some opportunities possible.”

Hill added that he views the situation with “guarded optimism” — “no pessimism here,” he said.

Cunningham’s Chief of Staff Nicholas Mirman said Thursday evening that the Navy’s recommendation is “one step in a very long process,” that will still have to go through the Department of Defense and other government agencies before finalization.

Mirman also noted that Cunningham has been very vocal about his support for wind energy in this area.

“This is definitely a real opportunity for both the congressman and the assemblyman to come together in a bipartisan way to benefit the Central Coast,” he said.

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A map shows potential call areas for future wind farm developments. Courtesy of Bureau of Ocean Energy Management

What that means for Morro Bay and Diablo Canyon

Morro Bay Mayor John Headding said that though the Navy had concerns about specific areas along the coast, he was confident there were pathways forward for potential projects off Morro Bay.

“I wasn’t terribly discouraged, nor was I concerned that it could not happen, or that the issue was dead,” he told The Tribune in a phone interview Thursday evening.

This is good news for the city, considering it has already taken serious steps into establishing an offshore wind development off its coast.

The Morro Bay City Council signed an agreement with Castle Wind LLC in November 2018 to support its efforts to generate approximately 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy with an offshore wind project in the area.

“We’re obviously very excited about that,” Headding said, noting that the city is uniquely situated as a prime location for wind energy development because of its high winds and existing power infrastructure left over from the defunct Morro Bay Power Plant.

Headding said Thursday that he was confident that that future project is still a possibility.

The same can’t be said for the Diablo Canyon area, previously identified by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management as a potential site for offshore wind development.

Both Headding and Hill told The Tribune after Thursday’s meeting they felt that the likelihood of a wind project off the coast of the soon-to-be-decommissioned nuclear power plant was unlikely due to the Navy’s “significant concerns” with development in that area.

WIND FARM EXPLAINER

Decision lies with Bureau of Ocean Energy Management

A representative of the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which closed a public comment period on the potential for offshore wind turbines along the Central Coast in January, said the department has not yet received an update from the Navy on its wind exclusion maps.

The decision on granting leases for wind farms anywhere along the California coast will ultimately lie with BOEM, though it is expected to heavily factor the Department of Defense’s recommendation into its decision.

BOEM is examining the potential for offshore wind energy developments in three “call areas”: the Morro Bay area, which actually extends farther north near Cambria and San Simeon, the Diablo Canyon area and another in Northern California off the coast of Humboldt County.

At a December open house meeting, Jean Thurston, a renewable energy program specialist with BOEM, said there were still many roadblocks to seeing wind turbines along the Central Coast.

First, the department has to finish its planning and analysis phase that includes the call for information and nomination, plus public comment, identifying potential areas of interest and then environmental reviews.

Then it would move on to an auction to lease the lands. If successful, a company would then move on to the site assessment phase, followed ultimately by construction.

When all is said and done, Thurston said the Central Coast was likely about eight or nine years away from seeing any wind turbine construction.

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