Could offshore wind turbines help power Vandenberg? A French company wants to find out

Prospects for floating wind turbines off California have been stalled for several years, largely because the U.S. Navy has yet to find any place off the West Coast that does not pose a conflict with its seagoing operations.

Now there is a surprise development that could bring wind energy to waters closer to shore than previously proposed.

The French company Ideol has applied for a permit to do some wind-speed testing in state waters — less than 3 miles out — off the coast of Vandenberg Air Force Base to generate energy for base operations.

A new wind proposal

Up until now, discussions of wind energy off the Central Coast have focused on sites about 30 miles offshore in federal waters.

So far, at least 11 international companies have lined up ready to bid on a potential lease if offered by the federal government.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has announced it would like to offer leases in three locations off California: near Diablo Canyon, Morro Bay/Cambria and Humboldt in Northern California.

Guarding the gate for the Navy is Encroachment Program Director Steve Chung, based in San Diego, who says that despite the delay, “discussion is underway at the highest level of the Department of Defense (DOD) leadership to see if something is possible.”

But like the rest of us, the BOEM is waiting for word from Steve Chung.

That Vandenberg portion of the Santa Barbara coast is not on the current BOEM list, at least not yet.

Jurisdiction for state waters falls to the California State Lands Commission, which will hear the new request at its Aug. 23 meeting in Los Angeles.

Vandenberg is interested in the idea as it looks to diversify its power sources, including more marine renewables. Already, the base gets about 35% of its electricity from a new 22-megawatt solar plant that was built by SunPower and has been in operation for about a year.

“Vandenberg Air Force Base is supportive of the Ideol offshore wind energy project as an option to consider in its efforts to increase its overall energy resiliency,” said Col. Michael Hunsberger, 30th Mission Support commander. “These types of projects are assessed to ensure they have no adverse mission impacts and are also subject to U.S Air Force and U.S. Department of Defense considerations and approvals.”

Ideol is not the only company to express interest in supplying offshore wind power to Vandenberg.

Chung said his office has received interest from several other companies “in both wind and wave power” at the Vandenberg location.

Chung represents all branches of the military as a DOD official and will be involved because of the likelihood that energy operations could extend into federal waters.

“I will be there at the Lands Commission meeting“ and will likely be part of the discussion, he said.

What are the options off Vandenberg?

On its website, Ideol says it has installed a 2-megawatt floating wind turbine off the Atlantic Coast of France. During the first half of 2019, France’s first offshore wind turbine produced a total of 2.2 gigawatt hours and faced significant wave heights up to 38 feet, Ideol reported.

The company has yet to respond for comment regarding plans for Vandenberg.

But 2 megawatts is actually small compared to the state of the art right now, with GE selling a 12-megawatt offshore wind turbine whose blades would reach more than the length of two football fields from one tip to another. It is not likely to stop there as the Department of Defense is reportedly working on a 50-megawatt turbine with hinged blades so the units can be shipped on a truck.

The idea is that a few wind turbines off the Vandenberg coast could potentially supply the base with some 25 megawatts of power, which could double its renewable power and help make it more “resilient” to potential energy disruptions — a major concern for military bases.

The plan to do a project off the Vandenberg coast is apparently no secret, but it hasn’t received much public attention.

The well-connected Surfrider organization recently posted a white paper on offshore renewables and stated the following without citing a source:

“Vandenberg Pilot Project is a proposed 3-turbine floating offshore wind farm off the Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County, California. Working with multiple universities, this pilot project hopes to establish a ‘marine energy research area’ off the coast, and then develop within those spatial limits. This wind energy project is also proposing to use the transmission cables currently used by an active oil rig, thus reducing the additional cost and environmental impact of laying new subsurface cables and onshore connections,” Surfrider said.

In this Aug. 15, 2016 file photo, three of Deepwater Wind’s five turbines stand in the water off Block Island, R.I, the nation’s first offshore wind farm. Michael Dwyer AP

Idea could appeal to the Navy

Confirming the scenario, Chung said to the degree a project would use existing infrastructure already in place, it would ease the Navy’s concerns.

“It would be less impactful if a renewable project utilized the cable that connects to the shore from Platform Irene,” he said of the oil-drilling facility located some 5 miles off the Vandenberg coast.

The platform is nearing the end of its use, and three other nearby oil platforms are scheduled to be mothballed as well.

The idea to use Platform Irene’s footprint to site some wind turbines and connect to the shore would involve both federal and state waters, requiring officials from both jurisdictions to work together if something is going to happen.

Helping this pilot offshore wind project to be potentially first out of the chute is that it starts small with just a few turbines, does no new shore landings and uses the cable and pipelines that already connect to the shore as well.

In addition, it provides renewable power to an eager customer with plenty of clout, one that Chung can endorse and that presents few impacts that could trigger long delays.

Unlike some of the other coastal areas being considered, this area has no Highway 1 and has few residents or visitors to complain about any viewshed issues.

While it is possible this offshore wind project could happen sooner than others, Chung may still give the green light to other areas on the West Coast as well, like the Morro Bay competition that has drawn so much wind industry interest and is much larger in scale. But implementation remains years out, even if they get an OK.

Earlier plans for wave energy

If some of this discussion sounds familiar, you might remember that PG&E did a multi-year wave study off the Vandenberg coast but decided to shelve the idea in 2011. The plan, called Central Coast Wave Connect, also would have hooked up to Platform Irene. More recently a 2016 National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) study found the Vandenberg coast to be the “number one site in southern California for wave energy.”

It is possible a Vandenberg project could also involve waves or tides.

PG&E plan at 5.59.27 AM.jpg

One company said to be interested also in bidding on a Vandenberg offshore wind project, UK-based Cierco, has the world’s first near-shore operational wave power station (Orkney, UK) and the world’s largest approved wave array (Isle of Lewis, UK).

But why would oil companies want to participate at all in this funeral for fossil fuels?

Oil companies here face a huge cost to completely dismantle their oil rig platforms and might welcome the idea they could be converted to artificial reefs that promote diverse sea life at a far lower cost than complete demolition. One 2016 estimate from the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, said difference could be as much as $100 million vs. $5 million.

Oil companies might notice, and instead of being known for pills that harm wildlife, they would be recognized for enhancing their habitat.

The idea has been promoted as Rigs to Reefs, highlighted by some UC Santa Barbara research earlier this year.

“These hulking structures, rising hundreds of feet from the ocean floor, provide a unique habitat. The complex shape of the rig’s support creates a 3-dimensional reef for animals to colonize and live near. And the rig’s open construction allows currents to pass through, bringing nutrients. … As far as the marine life is concerned, they already are reefs.”

Update: This story has been updated to include comment from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

John Lindt is the editor of sierra2thesea.net.
Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune