After years of anticipation, the prospect of creating a floating wind farm off the coast of Humboldt County, generating clean energy and economic growth, took a significant step forward last week.
Gov. Gavin Newsom joined Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and other federal officials to announce an agreement that will allow for the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to offer a lease auction as early as next year for two stretches of California's coastal waters. The first is a 399-mile stretch on the Central Coast northwest of Morro Bay and the second an unspecified site about 20 miles off Humboldt Bay.
"Developing offshore wind to produce clean, renewable energy could be a game-changer to achieving California's clean energy goals and addressing climate change — all while bolstering the economy and creating new jobs," Newsom said in a press release. "This historic announcement, which could provide clean power for up to 1.6 million homes over the next decade, represents the innovative approach we need for a clean energy economy that protects the coasts, fisheries, marine life and Tribal and cultural resources we value so much as Californians."
While consistent strong winds off the North Coast have long had tantalizing potential, waters off the local coast get too deep, too quickly for traditional standing turbine technology. But recent years have seen the advent of floating platforms, which place 750-plus-foot-tall turbines fixed to partially submerged barges or platforms that are then tethered to the ocean floor, with the first full-scale deep water wind farm opening of the coast of Scotland in 2017. State officials quickly took notice, feeling offshore wind — which typically sees peak production in the late afternoon and evening — could mesh with solar infrastructure, which typically peaks midday and vanishes at sunset, to lessen the need for costly energy storage.
California's Central Coast was the obvious site, with its proximity to the state's energy grid and population centers. But the U.S. Navy objected to siting any offshore wind developments on most of the coast, saying it would veto potential plans from Los Angeles to north of Big Sur because they could interfere with military testing operations. The Navy has since agreed not to oppose two sites — off Morrow and Humboldt bays.
Back in 2018, Redwood Coast Offshore Wind, a partnership between Redwood Energy Authority, Ocean Winds and Aker Offshore Wind, submitted an unsolicited lease request with BOEM to begin the process of creating an offshore wind farm off Humboldt Bay. The request has essentially sat in purgatory as BOEM has weighed its options, but will now be included in what's being called the North Coast Call Area.
RCEA Director Matthew Marshall said BOEM will now undergo an approximately year-long process of doing an initial environmental review with the aim of opening the sites up for auction some time in 2022.
Redwood Coast Offshore Wind, Marshall said, plans to bid with the goal of developing a 100- to 150-megawatt project that will generate an amount of electricity roughly equivalent to the Pacific Gas & Electric natural gas power plan through 10 to 15 wind turbines.
"It's the appropriate scale, I think, for a first step," Marshall said, adding that there would be the potential to expand in the future.
However, a factor that will significantly limit the scale of any project off the North Coast is the fact that the energy infrastructure does not currently exist to export large amounts of electricity from Humboldt County to other parts of the electric grid. Changing that would require either extending high-capacity power lines east through Trinity County to connect with the state grid in Cottonwood or building an undersea transport system to the south, both of which would come with price tags in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Consequently, Marshall said he thinks there will be less bidding interest from companies looking to develop off the North Coast.
"I think it's going to be a lot more competitive on the central coast," he said. "The transmission constraints up here are really well known and the opportunity up here is much more modest, at least for the foreseeable future."
Marshall said BOEM's auction will be what's known as multi-vector, meaning it will take into account community benefits agreements and other "nonfinancial elements." That said, such auctions are known to fetch lucrative bids, with one for three sites off Massachusetts' coast in 2018 fetching a collective $405.1 million.
Marshall said RCEA did a lot of community engagement work back in 2018, even reaching a memorandum of understanding with the Humboldt Fishermen's Marketing Association in which they agree to work together to identify, avoid, minimize and mitigate impacts to the commercial fishing industry, that he hopes will garner community support and bolster their bid.
A key component in determining the viability of offshore wind on the North Coast will be proposed improvements to the infrastructure at the Port of Humboldt Bay, which got a shot in the arm last week, too, with the allocation of $11 million in Newsom's budget proposal. The Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District hopes to leverage the funds to secure another $44 million in matching funds, with a grant application due July 30.
"Humboldt Bay is a deep draft port with under-utilized coastal dependent industrial land that could be revitalized and upgraded for staging floating offshore wind projects," District Executive Director Larry Oetker said in a press release. "Developing a purpose-built port facility for the staging, construction, long-term operations and maintenance of offshore wind projects will position Humboldt County to maximize local economic and job creating benefits associated with offshore wind."
Currently, the entrance to Humboldt Bay is deep and wide enough to accommodate barges pulling the wind turbines to port for maintenance but the docks in the bay — all of which were built primarily for loading and unloading wood products — can't handle the weight of the turbines, which run some 500 tons. The needed improvements to the docks and the addition of massive hoists needed to move the turbines could also create a host of other shipping opportunities.
While the project would initially depend on turbines built elsewhere and shipped into Humboldt Bay, there's the potential they could eventually be manufactured on the Samoa Peninsula, as well, which could create scores of well-paying jobs and reverberating financial impacts.
For the immediate future, however, Marshall said RCEA is focused on re-engaging the local community and various stakeholders in preparation for the bid process. Once bids are approved, he said there would be numerous project-specific layers of environmental review and licensing.
"The partners we're working with are committed to offshore wind in general, and particularly to trying to move a project forward here," he said. "I'm optimistic."
Journal staff writer Iridian Casarez contributed to this report.
Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.