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It’s safe and emissions free. So why is California in the doldrums around offshore wind?

It’s safe and emissions free. So why is California in the doldrums around offshore wind?
A windmill lines an undeveloped stretch of coast along Cayucos' Estero Bay with Morro Rock visible in the background. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Gleaning energy from ocean wind would seem to be a California ideal: It emits no greenhouse gases, has nearly no environmental footprint, and harnesses one of the state’s most powerful and plentiful natural resources.

But engineering challenges, regulatory hurdles and concerns about the turbines’ impact on wildlife have, until recently, mucked any forward progress.

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A deal this week between Morro Bay and a wind developer, however, shows that at least some players in the wind game are gambling the energy source is going to take off along the California coast, and have started building alliances with local governments and jockeying for position.

As of yet, federal and state governments have not approved offshore wind development in California. No environmental assessments have been conducted. No permits have been issued. No bids on lease sales have been offered. The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has yet to decide whether to allow such a sale. And the technology needed to anchor such turbines in California’s deep seas is still developing.

But that hasn’t daunted Alla Weinstein, the chief executive of Castle Wind, LLC — a San Francisco wind farm developer — from striking an agreement Monday with the city of Morro Bay that would provide her company exclusive access to the city’s connection to the power grid.

She’s so convinced of the energy’s future that her company has paid Morro Bay $250,000 to secure exclusive access to the city’s now-defunct PG&E substation and has promised, should the federal government someday allow a lease sale, to support local job development, education and green initiatives.

The move demonstrates the high-stakes and potentially lucrative energy source wind developers see along the California coast as the state pushes to power itself entirely with renewables by 2045. This is despite state regulators’ general distaste — and subsequent red-tape — for offshore energy projects since the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill.

“The offshore wind industry, although nascent, holds a lot of promise to help California meet its ambitious renewable energy goals,” said Kate Huckelbridge, a senior environmental scientist for the California Coastal Commission, which has jurisdiction over state waters where cables from any offshore wind operation would ultimately lie. “But we need to get a better understanding of the potential environmental impacts to coastal resources before getting too much further down the regulatory path.”

Offshore wind is a burgeoning industry worldwide, with new farms popping up in the Baltic and North Seas, as well as along the United States’ eastern seaboard.

Part of the reason it has come late to California is a regional geological conundrum.

Unlike areas where offshore wind farms have been developed, the Pacific coastline drops off quickly along the continental shelf, making it impossible for developers to secure permanent structures to the ocean floor.

Instead, turbine developers with an eye on California are considering floating turbines tethered in place by cables attached to the ocean floor as far as 3,600 feet below the surface.

The technology is new, with the only functioning floating wind farm — of just five turbines — debuting off the northeastern coast of Scotland last year. Each of its 331-foot-tall turbines is capable of generating 6MW of energy; when combined, they will supply roughly the energy required to power 22,000 households, according to company documents.

Prospectors in California envision farms of a much larger scale. Weinstein’s Castle Wind plans include roughly 100 turbines that, when operating, collectively, could produce a maximum of 1,000MW of power — enough to power about 700,000 homes.

The turbines would be located roughly 30 miles from shore, farther out than most east coast wind farms. For instance, the wind farm off of Rhode Island’s Block Island is just shy of four miles from the coast.

“The biggest concern I have is the lack of familiarity in the minds of human beings,” said Weinstein, whose company is a joint project of Seattle’s Trident Wind and EnBW North America, a German energy supply company with wind farms in the Baltic and North Seas. “On the East Coast, they no longer think this is something crazy. It’s just a matter of getting people used to the idea and getting the point across.”

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Approval for such an operation is still far off, but the process has begun.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in October published a request for commercial interest in three potential offshore wind-lease areas off the coast — Humboldt County, Morro Bay and Diablo Canyon — and opened up a 100-day public comment period.

Once comments have been collected and reviewed, the bureau will conduct a limited environmental assessment, which the state’s coastal commission will review for consistency with state and federal laws.

Only after all that is done, will the federal government decide whether to grant a lease sale.

Though President Trump has personally waged a legal fight against an offshore wind development that he blames for marring the view from one of his golf courses in Scotland and criticized turbines for killing birds, his administration has pushed to increase domestic energy development. In January, the Interior Dept. sought to open up California’s coastal waters to new oil and gas drilling despite opposition from the state.

Offshore wind energy development could prove to be one of the few areas where the Trump administration and the state wind up aligned.

“We have enjoyed a very collaborative approach when working on offshore renewable energy,” said John Romero, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. “Certainly, we see the value as well. We’re working really hand in hand with the state of California on this.”

A spokesman for the California Energy Commission, which has been promoting the energy source, declined to comment.

The only prominent skeptics so far appear to be Department of Defense, which uses the coast for military exercises and has warned that offshore developments may interfere with its operations, and environmental groups concerned about potential impacts on marine life.

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“We can’t be too cautious,” said Jennifer Savage, California policy manager for the Surfrider Foundation. “We have a federal administration that has shown recklessness in its disregard for marine life. Let’s just not rush into this.”

The Department of Defense could not be reached for comment.

Morro Bay has become an area of specific interest because of the city’s existing power station, which makes connecting to the grid relatively easy for an offshore development.

Companies such as Washington, D.C.-based Magellan and Norway’s Equinor, formerly Statoil, have also expressed interest in developing off of Morro Bay, and if a lease sale is offered, will make bids of their own.

“We’ve been looking at the California market for a while,” said Jim Lanard, Magellan’s chief executive. He said the state’s pursuit of a 100% renewable electricity market makes it an attractive place to consider wind. And he’s undaunted by Weinstein’s agreement with the city.

He said if both his company and Weinstein’s leased offshore blocks in the area, and Castle Wind blocked his company from accessing the substation, via the tunnel, Magellan could run cables south to the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, and hook up there.

“Unfortunately for Morro Bay, if that were to happen, then Diablo Canyon would receive all of the benefits we’d otherwise bring to the Morro Bay community,” he said.

Jamie Irons, the outgoing mayor of Morro Bay and John Headding, a council member and mayor-elect, say the agreement doesn’t restrict the city from working with others if Castle Wind does not succeed.

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