Can OffShore Wind Blow Out California's Fires?

Christine Heinrichs
Thursday, September 30, 2021

California jump-started the offshore wind industry when Governor Gavin Newsom signed  AB525 on September 23, https://www.gov.ca.gov/2021/09/23/governor-newsom-signs-climate-action-bills-outlines-historic-15-billion-package-to-tackle-the-climate-crisis-and-protect-vulnerable-communities/ . Now the state and industry are grappling with the implications for wildlife, the environment and energy demands as they weigh the costs and benefits. Possibilities were reviewed at a conference held in Scotland September 15-16 with dozens of international players attending virtually. 

In late May the Biden administration opened two areas off the California coast to floating wind projects: a 399-square-mile area off Morro Bay in the Central Coast and another off the North Coast’s Humboldt County. The permitting process may take a decade or longer before either is constructed.

Eliminating fossil fuels and replacing them with renewables to reduce greenhouse gases are imperative to mitigate the climate crisis. However, floating wind farms will impact local wildlife and local economies. All the impacts need to be evaluated and weighed before choosing the renewable path forward. Energy systems and policy, migratory birds and mammals, and other marine life need to be studied to estimate the effects of floating offshore wind energy production. The amount of energy anticipated from floating wind farms and how it fits into the country’s energy portfolio have to be weighed along with its effects on people and wildlife.

The bill requires that the state’s energy supply be 100 percent zero carbon by 2045. Offshore wind will be needed to make up the 145 Gigawatts of new energy from renewables needed to meet that goal. 

“This means great things for offshore wind, after four years of stagnation,” said Jim Lanard, CEO of Magellan Wind, https://mieibc.org/company/magellan-wind/, at an industry conference in Aberdeen, Scotland September 15-16. 

Floating wind projects take advantage of steady winds that blow offshore. Those faster, steadier winds can produce more energy. Wind power increases with the cube of wind speed. Bigger turbines with longer blades capture more wind and are more aerodynamically efficient. How they overcome obstacles such as interference with fisheries, environmental damage, and high cost will influence how many, and which ones, get built.


National programs are leading the way. The Covid stimulus, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, helped by extending the investment tax credit to 2025, reducing expenses. The Biden administration’s Build Back Better package and the Green Jobs Plan also contain economic incentives to develop offshore wind that “have energized lawmakers,” said Jamie McDonald, director of operations for Xodus, https://www.xodusgroup.com/, now at the Boston office.

The political climate is changing. Climate change is becoming a bipartisan issue, with red and blue state governors competing for the jobs, development and supply chain for renewable energy projects, Lanard said. 

“The consensus is that climate change is an existential threat,” he said from his office in Houston. “The words I’m hearing out of California are, ‘Doing nothing is doing harm’.”

California site issues

California is the focus, but Oregon and Washington coasts are also in the sights for floating wind farm locations. Floating offshore wind farms are proposed for California, 30 miles off Morro Bay on the Central Coast, and off the northern coast near the Oregon state line. Construction on the up to 200-turbine Central Coast wind farm could begin in 2025-2027, pending environmental review and regulatory permitting.

The military uses the airspace over the Central Coast for training. That snarled consideration temporarily in 2020, but discussions have resolved the conflict. 

“The area has important military uses, but we know we can be compatible,” Lanard, a veteran of the Obama administration, said. “Now we are working together cooperatively. There are a lot of Obama alums in the Department of the Interior and the Department of Defense, directly advising president.” 


Business leaders are looking for certainty to commit investments, McDonald said. The permitting and regulatory process requires the lease areas to be defined, so that environmental assessments can be done preparatory to the lease auction and sale with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, https://www.boem.gov/. Baseline environmental surveys will be required, taking 18 months to two years to complete, on which to write an environmental statement. A federal permit as well as approval of state agencies such as the Department of Fish & Wildlife and the California Public Utility Commission (PUC) could push construction four to six years past that 2025 construction date.   

Cost is a significant factor, but these industry leaders expect it to decrease significantly as projects advance. Onshore wind costs have declined, and solar costs declined by 90 percent as the technology improved. 

Jonah Margulis, senior vice president of US Operations for Aker Offshore Wind, https://akeroffshorewind.com/, expects the Levelized Cost of Energy, the standard measure of cost of energy production, for floating wind to decline from $110 to $60 by 2032. 

Transmission is another factor influencing the success of floating wind. Central California has facilities in place that could serve that function. The Morro Bay Power Plant has been vacant for several years. A 600 MW lithium-ion battery storage project is proposed for part of the site. It would be the largest in the US. Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant will be closed, one reactor in 2024 and the second in 2025, opening that site for electrical transmission. 

The north coast site lacks that advantage, but Humboldt State University, slated to become the state’s next polytechnic university, is studying prospective transmission solutions.

“The future is floating on the west coast,” Margulis said. “The US is back on track for a booming era on east and west coasts.”

Fishing conflicts

Morro Bay is home to active commercial fishing. The Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization and the Port San Luis Commercial Fishermen’s Association have signed a Mutual Benefit Agreement with Castle Wind, https://castlewind.com/, the company actively pursuing development of the site. The agreement provides for a fund to assist the associations with support for members.  

Such financial arrangements are made for good relationships, but are not legally required, Adam Payne, Senior Offshore Consenter, Flotation Energy https://www.flotationenergy.com/what-we-do, said. Funds can be directed to projects that benefit the community, such as the Thanet Fishermen’s Association Fuel Depot in the UK, which provides round-the-clock fuel support to fishermen.

Each site requires detailed knowledge of that fishery to develop a unique solution.

“Floating is going to be a more difficult discussion,” said Payne. “Certain gear is not compatible with floating wind equipment.”

Commercial fishing can coexist with floating wind, said Signe Nielsen, senior products management development at RWE, https://www.rwe.com/en. The industry’s experience with fixed wind projects in Europe will help floating wind projects adapt to the fishermen’s needs by siting the projects with their concerns about potential overlap with fisheries, navigation and site design in mind, she said. 

“There will be lessons to be learned along the way,” she said, citing cooperation, building communication and transparency as factors to resolve conflicts.

Local opposition can doom a project. Shell encountered opposition to a natural gas pipeline that caused local turmoil and tension, eventually resulting in local activists being jailed. The experience is recounted in the documentary The Pipe, available online, https://guidedoc.tv/documentary/the-pipe-documentary-film/ 

Environmental protection

California’s coastline is subject to various levels of protection. The Central Coast site is just outside the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The corridor is known as the Blue Serengeti, for the many large marine mammals that migrate through the area, several kinds of seals and whales, including Blue Whales. Seabirds also fly through the area. The turbines could be over 700 feet tall. Species that live far at sea are not studied well with respect to disturbance by floating wind turbines. That research remains to be done. 

In the respect of environmental disruption, floating wind turbines compare favorably with fixed wind turbines onshore, Nielsen said. Installation is less noisy than pounding pilings into the seabed, and less seabed is disturbed by the floating platform moorings than fixed bottom turbines. The moorings, giant chain cables, are too big for marine mammals to become entangled, but they might snag ghost fishing gear that would endanger seals and whales. Marine mammals might not be diving to the 3,000-foot depths, which remains to be established by research.

The floating platforms could act as fish aggregators and fish nurseries, she said, although it’s unclear whether the fish taking refuge under the platforms represent an increase in fish or relocation of fish from other places. 

The platforms could act as artificial reefs to increase biodiversity, Monica Fundingsland, sustainability advisor at Equinor, https://www.equinor.com/en/what-we-do/wind.html, said. Three studies are underway at Hywind in Scotland.

A study of the effect of operational noise on seabirds at Hywind in Scotland is expected by the end of 2021. Whether operational noise could be a barrier to marine mammals is not known.

Hywind Scotland is the pilot project, producing electric power since 2017. Its five 830-foot turbines, with rotors 500 feet in diameter, produce enough power to serve the equivalent of 36,000 homes, from about 19 miles offshore in water 300 to over 400 feet deep. The site off the California coast is about 3,000 feet deep.

Centralizing the research could help streamline the process by making information more easily available to all stakeholders, and addressing information gaps. Studies buried in industry information silos may conceal data already collected and result in duplicated effort. 


The port where the turbines will be either manufactured or assembled needs to be able to accommodate the huge equipment. Ports also need to be free of obstructions such as bridges and electrical wires to allow the equipment to be brought in. 

Morro Bay is not deep enough, so other facilities will have to be developed to assemble the turbines, which will then be towed out to the site. Morro Bay harbor will then become a staging area for maintenance and operations. 

Another restriction is the Jones Act, which requires port-to-port cargo movement on ships that are U.S.-owned, U.S.-crewed, U.S.-registered, and U.S.-built. One Jones Act-compliant vessel is now being built, but the industry plans to bring vessels over from Europe and then transfer the unassembled pieces to feeder vessels that comply with the Jones Act sent out to collect them. That raises a point of risk to the equipment, which could be damaged in the transition from one ship to another. 

Great Lakes

The industry is also evaluating the Great Lakes as floating wind farm sites. A major difference is that the states that border the lakes own the lake bed, so they have more flexibility in leasing them. 

The fresh water lakes form ice during the cold months. Floating turbines can be adapted to floating ice, but the pressure of ice on the foundations is another challenge. The Great Lakes Wind Assessment is due in draft form by the end of 2021

Building an industry

“It’s challenging to build an industry, but we’ve got to start somewhere,” said Aker’s Margulis. “The ambitions we’ve all had for a number of years are being released.”

RenewableUK, https://events.renewableuk.com/fow21, with 25 industry sponsors and partners, hosted the Floating Offshore Wind conference in Aberdeen Scotland September 15-16, 2021. Over 500 attended, in person and virtually. Twenty-eight exhibitors pitched their products and 56 speakers presented information and took questions. Hopefully together they can work out the issues of concern and successfully create new renewable energy options for California and the nation.

Read the full story here
Photos courtesy of
Christine Heinrichs

Christine Heinrichs writes from her home on California’s Central Coast. She keeps a backyard flock of about a dozen hens. She follows coastal issues, writing a regular column on the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery for the San Luis Obispo Tribune. Her narrative on the Central Coast condor flock will appear in Ten Spurs 2021 edition.

Her book, How to Raise Chickens, was first published in 2007, just as the local food movement was starting to focus attention on the industrial food system. Backyard chickens became the mascot of local food. The third edition of How to Raise Chickens was published in January 2019. The Backyard Field Guide to Chickens was published in 2016. Look for them in Tractor Supply stores and online.

She has a B.S. in Journalism from the University of Oregon and belongs to several professional journalism and poultry organizations.


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