PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Tuesday marks the first-ever U.S. auction of leases to develop commercial-scale floating wind farms in the deep waters off the West Coast.
The live online auction for the five leases – three off California’s central coast and two off the north coast – has attracted strong interest and 43 companies from around the world have been approved to bid. The wind turbines will float approximately 25 miles offshore.
The growth of offshore wind comes as climate change intensifies and the need for clean energy increases. It will also be cheaper. The costs of developing offshore wind have fallen 60% since 201[ads1]0, according to a July report by the International Renewable Energy Agency. It fell 13% in 2021 alone.
Offshore wind is well-established in the UK and some other countries, but is just beginning to take off off US shores, and this is the nation’s first attempt at floating wind turbines. Auctions so far have been for those anchored to the seabed.
Europe has some floating offshore wind — a project in the North Sea has been operating since 2017 — but the potential for the technology is huge in high-wind areas off the coast of the United States, said Josh Kaplowitz, vice president of offshore wind at the American Clean Power Association.
– We know that this works. We know this can provide a large part of our electricity needs and if we are to solve the climate crisis we need to put as many clean electrons online as we can, especially given the increase in electric vehicle load demand,” he said. “We can reach our greenhouse gas targets only with offshore wind as part of the puzzle.”
Similar auctions are in the works off the coast of Oregon next year and in the Gulf of Maine in 2024. President Joe Biden set a goal of deploying 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030 using traditional technology that secures wind turbines to the seabed, enough to power 10 million homes. Then the administration announced plans in September to develop floating platforms that could vastly expand US offshore wind.
The nation’s first offshore wind farm opened off the coast of Rhode Island in late 2016, allowing residents of tiny Block Island to shut down five diesel generators. Wind campaigners noticed, but with five turbines, it’s not commercial scale.
Globally, as of 2021, there were only 123 megawatts of floating offshore wind in operation, but that number is projected to increase to nearly 19 gigawatts — 150 times more — by 2030, according to a report last week by Offshore Wind California.
The California sale is designed to promote a domestic supply chain and create union jobs. Bidders can convert portions of their bids into credits that benefit those affected by the wind development – communities, tribes and commercial fishermen.
As envisioned, the turbines – possibly almost as tall as the Eiffel Tower – would float on giant triangular platforms about the size of a small city block or floating cylinders with cables anchoring them underwater. They will each have three blades longer than the distance from home plate to the outfield on a baseball diamond, and must be assembled on land and towed upright to their destination on the high seas.
Modern tall turbines, whether on or offshore, can produce more than 20 times more power than shorter machines, for example from the early 1990s.
As for visibility, “under absolutely perfect conditions, crystal clear on the best days, at the highest point, you might see little dots on the horizon,” said Larry Oetker, executive director of the Humboldt Bay Harbor Conservation and Recreation District, which has prepared its deep-water port for the projects.
Offshore wind is a good supplement to solar energy, which shuts down at night. Winds far offshore are stronger and more persistent and also pick up in the evening, just when solar power goes offline but demand is high, said Jim Berger, a partner at law firm Norton Rose Fulbright who specializes in financing renewable energy projects.
California has a 2045 goal of carbon neutrality. But “as the sun goes down, we’re more dependent on fossil fuel production,” Berger said. “These projects are huge, so when you add a project or a couple of projects, you add significantly to the power generation base in the state,” he said.
The leases have the potential to generate 4.5 gigawatts of energy – enough to power 1.5 million homes – and could lead to major changes in local communities in the rural coastal areas closest to the leases.
In remote Humboldt County, northern California, the offshore projects are expected to generate more than 4,000 thousand jobs and $38 million in state and local tax revenue in an area that has been economically depressed since the decline of the timber industry in the 1970s and 1980s. according to the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Conservation and Recreation District.
The district already received $12 million from California to prepare its deepwater port for the potential installation of the massive turbines, which are too tall to fit under most bridges when towed out to sea, said Oetker, the district’s executive director.
“We have hundreds of acres of vacant, underutilized industrial property on the existing navigation channel … and there are no overhead bridges or power lines or anything,” he said.
But some are also skeptical of the projects, despite favoring a transition to clean energy.
Environmentalists are concerned about the effects on endangered and threatened whales, which could become entangled in the cables that will anchor the turbines. There are also concerns about birds and bats colliding with the turbine blades and whales being struck by vessels towing components to the site. Federal regulators have set a boating speed limit for the project of less than 12 mph to address that concern, said Kristen Hislop, senior director of the marine program at the Environmental Defense Center.
“Floating offshore wind is brand new and there are only a couple of projects in the world and we don’t know how it’s going to affect our coast,” she said.
Tribes in the vast coastal areas also worry about damage to their ancestral lands from turbine plants and transmission infrastructure. They fear that the farms will be visible on clear days from sacred prayer places high in the mountains.
Frankie Myers, Deputy Chief of the Yurok Tribe, has attended four wind developer conferences in the past year. Tribes worked with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which oversees the leasing process, to secure a 5% bid credit that includes tribal communities for the first time, he said. The agency also assisted with a cultural assessment of the potential impact on views from sacred prayer sites, he said.
The tribes are so engaged now, early on, because they are used to outside industries coming to them with promises that are not fulfilled. They’ve seen things done wrong, and knowing this windswept area intimately, they want this done right, he said.
“Before they even showed us the map, before they even showed us all their breakdowns…we said, ‘We know exactly where it’s going,'” Myers said. “There’s no question where the best wind comes from, we all understand that. We’ve been here for a couple of thousand years.”
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