California has taken a major step towards launching the first commercial offshore wind energy program on the west coast, a project that would open the state’s waters to hundreds of floating turbines and could eventually power 1.6m homes.
The state announced an agreement with the US government on Tuesday that would open federal waters off California’s central and northern coasts to new windfarms, and put the state and the country in a better position to meet ambitious climate targets.
“California, as we all know, has a world class offshore wind resource, and it can play a major role in helping to accelerate California’s and the nation’s transition to clean energy,” said Gina McCarthy, the White House’s national climate adviser.
The new projects, if approved and built, would provide a major expansion of offshore wind power in the US. Currently, there are just two working offshore windfarms – off Block Island in Rhode Island and off Virginia – but more than two dozen others are in development.
The announcement is part of Joe Biden’s plan to create 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030. California separately set a goal to produce all electricity by 2045 through renewable energy resources and zero-carbon generating facilities. The plan includes floating 380 windmills across a nearly 400 sq-mile (1,035 sq km) expanse of roughly 250,000 acres north-west of Morro Bay.
The agreement comes two weeks after the Biden administration announced a $3bn project off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts that would power 400,000 homes with 84 turbines. Another proposed project, Ocean Wind, off New Jersey would create 1,100-megawatts of power. Those windfarms would be dwarfed by the scale of the California projects.
The California windfarms would produce a combined 4.6 gigawatts, with the Morro Bay operation providing two-thirds of that output.
State officials have spent years trying to advance plans for wind development and California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, noted that the Trump administration inhibited those efforts. He praised the plan, saying that developing offshore wind would be a “gamechanger to achieving California’s clean energy goals and addressing climate change”, and promised to expedite the state’s environmental review process to hasten production. He also said he included $20m in his revised budget proposal this month to invest in the project.
“We value process but not the paralysis of a process that takes years and years and years that can be done in a much more focused way,” Newsom said.
The US has lagged behind Europe on developing offshore wind power, and advocates of the plan have cited their successes as examples. But the plan is not without opposition and key obstacles remain.
For one, the Pacific Ocean is far deeper than the Atlantic, where infrastructure can be built directly on to the seafloor. California’s wind energy will have to rely on floating turbines, and the technology is still fairly new.
Fishermen are also concerned that construction and operation of projects on this scale could disrupt the ecosystem. They claim that they were not consulted on the impact the locations could have on their industry.
“We feel we’ve not been invited to have a seat at the table. We feel we’re on the menu,” said Mike Conroy, the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.
The area off Morro Bay is a fishery for tuna and sword fish and he is concerned that the floating turbines could change migratory patterns of whales and other species. If blue and humpback whales, for example, are forced closer to shore, it could bring closures of Dungeness crab fishing.
Opposition is also expected from coastal property owners who have expressed dismay over the impact floating turbines may have on their ocean views – and ultimately their property values.
The project is expected to take years to establish, as the interior department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which oversees this kind of development, will process and respond to public feedback on the plan.
But, some of those hurdles have already been handled. The Department of Defense, which pushed back against California’s attempts to develop a wind energy program in the area for years, due to its use of the area for training and operations, is now on board.
Environmental groups, including Audubon and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which have expressed concerns about how the plan could impact wildlife, also issued statements in support of the project with the caveat that fish, seabirds and marine mammals are protected.
The Environmental Defense Center, which was founded in Santa Barbara after a massive offshore oil spill in 1969, echoed that sentiment, calling for minimal harm to species and coastal communities.
With support from those groups, the Department of the Interior plans to finalize the site next month, and could open leasing by next year.
“Today’s announcement reflects months of active engagement and dedication between partners who are committed to advancing a clean energy future,” said the US interior secretary, Deb Haaland, in a statement. “The offshore wind industry has the potential to create tens of thousands of good-paying union jobs across the nation, while combating the negative effects of climate change.”