Fans of renewable energy anticipate a bonanza blowing off the coast of California.
But a map released by the U.S. Navy puts large swaths of the state off-limits to future offshore wind farms — including all of San Diego and Los Angeles counties, extending up to the Central Coast.
The military does not have the final say in the matter, as federal and state officials — as well as wind energy companies and at least one member of Congress — are working with the Department of Defense to develop a more flexible plan.
But the back-and-forth adds an extra layer of complexity to the nascent industry on the West Coast, where geographic features make it harder to construct wind farms in the Pacific Ocean than on the East Coast.
"There's a lot at stake here" for California to meet its ambitious clean energy goals, said Robert Collier, a policy analyst at the Green Energy Program at the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education. "California is going to need a lot more renewable energy from all sources. Offshore wind is not the only potential solution, but it is part of a multi-pronged strategy."
The sight of wind turbines anchored into the ground, their blades turning like giant pinwheels, has become more common in recent years. But it's rare to see a wind farm looming over open water — at least in the United States. European companies with projects in places such as Denmark and Scotland have taken the early lead in offshore wind energy.
The first commercial offshore wind facility in the U.S. was launched in December 2016 — the 30-megawatt Block Island Wind Farm in Rhode Island — and more are in the works.
In the Atlantic, offshore wind turbines can be bolted into the seabed in relatively shallow water.
But the continental shelf off the coast of the Pacific plunges quickly and steeply. That leaves developers with only one option: floating wind farms tethered, or moored, by cables to the ocean floor that don't penetrate the surface. Electricity from the turbines would be transmitted to a floating substation and carried to a power plant onshore via a buried cable.
It's estimated that nearly a terrawatt of electricity could be generated off the coast of California, 13 times more capacity than what is generated by all the land-based wind farms across the country. But in the past year, some of the lofty expectations have been tempered.
Two years ago, a Seattle-based company called Trident Winds filed an unsolicited lease request to build a floating wind project 33 nautical miles off the coast of Morro Bay near San Luis Obispo. Since then, Norwegian energy giant Statoil also has expressed interest.
At the request of Gov. Jerry Brown, the federal government's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management established an intergovernmental task force to look into opportunities for offshore wind in California.
State waters extend from the ocean shoreline outward by three nautical miles. Federal waters extend from three miles to 200 nautical miles. Floating offshore wind projects typically would be located in federal waters, but because the cables connect onshore, they would cross state waters. That means state as well as federal agencies would be involved.
The Department of Defense was asked to provide its assessment of the California coast. Last summer, the Navy released a map, using the colors of a traffic light — green for no restrictions, yellow for site-specific stipulations and red for what it called "wind exclusion," where the military wanted no wind farms at all. (Blue areas were coded for sites designated as National Marine Sanctuaries.)
The red "no-go" areas covered all of Southern California — from the southern tip of the Mexican border, extending through San Diego, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties and all the way to Big Sur. The area included the Central Coast — site of the potential Morro Bay projects.
The only areas colored green were north of Mendocino.
The Navy said the red areas should be off-limits to wind projects because they would conflict with "the requirements of Navy and Marine Corps missions conducted in the air, on the surface, and below the surface of these waters."
The map was updated in February and became even more restricted; all the green areas turned yellow.
Rep. Salud Carbajal, a congressman and Democrat from the San Luis Obispo area, wants the Navy to be more flexible. He met with naval representatives in March in Washington and came away encouraged.
Why is all of Southern California in the red zone? Steve Chung, the Navy's encroachment program director for the southwest region, pointed to the Point Mugu Sea Range north of Los Angeles and the sprawling Southern California Range Complex off the coast between Dana Point and San Diego.
The complex encompasses more than 120,000 square miles of sea space for training, equipping and maintaining combat-ready forces, "supporting the largest concentration of naval forces in the world," Chung said. The area also is used by the Marine Corps, the Air Force (Vandenberg Air Force Base is near Lompoc) and, to a lesser extent, the Army.
"It's a very congested environment out there," Chung said, "and we start [by] pointing out other activities such as marine traffic or civilian air traffic. When you begin presenting structures such as wind turbines, now you're introducing additional complexities."
When asked whether putting wind farms in Southern California would be difficult, Chung said, "Southern California is beyond a hard nut to crack. I don't see any realistic, conceivable manner where we can find offshore wind to coexist with the degree and complexity of operations that are occurring in Southern California."
The wind blows harder as you move up the California coast, and that's where wind developers have really set their sights.
It's also attractive to California policymakers to meet the state's renewable energy goals. The state's renewables portfolio standard requires power companies to derive 50% of their energy from renewable sources by 2030.
Renewables have a problem with "intermittency" — solar energy dips when the sun doesn't shine, and land-based wind falls off when the wind doesn't blow. Offshore wind blows harder and more consistently, which, its supporters say, will help balance the state's grid while allowing for more integration of clean energy sources.
A small community power authority in Humboldt County is in position to become the first to establish a floating wind farm in the country.
"We're excited," said Lori Biondini, the director of business development and planning at the Redwood Coast Energy Authority, a community choice aggregator, or CCA. "We like to be pioneers of things in the energy world."
Last month, the group formed a consortium to erect a 100- to 150-megawatt wind farm of between 12 and 15 turbines more than 20 miles off the coast of Eureka, near the Oregon border. The turbines, Biondini said, will be 700 to 900 feet tall. The project is expected to go online in 2024 or 2025.
"We have a world-class wind resource," Biondini said. "We have a way, way better wind resource up here than they do in Southern California." Average wind speeds off the Humboldt County coast exceed 10 meters per second, or 22 mph.
The Navy's updated map changed the coast of Humboldt County from green to yellow, but the project is "still definitely workable," Biondini said.
Chung said the color was changed largely because the North American Aerospace Defense Command wanted more information about the turbines to make sure they don't interfere with long-range radar.
But like Biondini, Chung sounded upbeat, saying, "We will continue to be very encouraged and very optimistic for the art of the possible in Northern California."
The outlook for the Central Coast is more cloudy, though.
"It's in a holding pattern," said Alla Weinstein, the founder of Trident Winds, the company that wants to construct a wind farm off the coast of Morro Bay. "We're working on the issues, but it will take some time to work them through."
If given the go-ahead, the Trident Winds project would be about six times more powerful than the facility planned at Humboldt Bay.
"They didn't come in with an obstructionist attitude," Carbajal said. "They expressed a willingness to continue the conversation with various companies and to find opportunities within the challenges they have outlined in their mapping."