California’s First Offshore Wind Power Project Faces Environmental Headwinds

The state wants more renewable energy, but environmental restrictions make getting projects off the ground difficult.
The cruise liner Queen Mary 2 passes the Burbo Bank Offshore Wind Farm in the Irish Sea. (Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters)
Nov 20, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Editor, reporter, and radio producer Zachary Slobig has covered coastal issues for Outside, NPR, Los Angeles Times, and many others.

Pollution-free, renewable energy for some 300,000 homes could arrive on the California coast in the next decade if a new wind farm plan can navigate the contentious climate that thus far has derailed all offshore power projects in the state since 1969.

Offshore wind development firm Trident Winds wants to put 100 floating wind turbines—tethered to the seafloor with a system of cables—15 miles off the coast from Morro Bay. The array would dwarf the only other offshore wind project in the United States—a five-turbine venture off the coast of Rhode Island, currently under construction.

In October, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law that compels the state’s utilities to generate half its electricity from renewables by 2030, and Trident Winds is hopeful the 600-foot-tall turbines could be part of the new energy mix, spinning off Morro Bay by 2025. The ambitious clean energy goals likely mean more offshore wind and wave energy proposals will be on the table for state agencies to consider. If past is prologue, though, the road ahead won’t be a breeze.

“One hundred turbines covering 40,000 acres is a massive footprint, and I know of no other similar proposals offshore,” said Susan Jordan of the California Coastal Protection Network. “Investors see the California coast as a bonanza, but it’s really like no other, and that’s because of the strict laws we have to protect it. We need a statewide policy and guidance to ensure that projects like these move forward in a coherent manner.”

In recent years, a handful of small offshore wave energy projects for the Northern California coast have failed to materialize for a variety of reasons—from funding shortfalls to impact on habitat. Tom Luster, an energy specialist with the California Coastal Commission, says a proposal for a small offshore energy research facility on the California Central Coast is wending its way through the approval and funding process. He believes a surge of offshore energy proposals could soon find his desk.

“The Coastal Act is built so that it’s pretty flexible,” said Luster. “As projects come up, we might not have specific policies to wind or wave energy, but the main questions are the same: How will projects affect marine life or public access to the shoreline?”

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Eric Markell, one of Trident Winds’ partners, says the proposed site is attractive because of reliable wind resources and existing onshore infrastructure—an existing decommissioned power plant, one of the most recognizable features of the Morro Bay landscape. “The cost of the project is to be determined,” Markell told KQED radio. “Economies of scale will drive down costs—both for the floating infrastructure and the turbines.”

The proposed Morro Bay site would float in waters between the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. But the Sierra Club and local tribe leaders have been working on an initiative to create the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary—a 140-mile stretch of coastline that includes the proposed Trident site.

Andrew Christie of the Sierra Club sees no reason why renewable offshore energy projects couldn’t coexist with protected waters. “NOAA’s approach is similar to ours—we will evaluate the formal project proposal once it’s submitted…and determine if the project’s potential impacts have been adequately analyzed and mitigated or avoided,” he said. “If the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary has been designated for the area at that time, we’ll also consult with NOAA to assure that harm to sanctuary resources will be avoided.”

Globally, offshore wind power is still finding its sea legs.

Take England, for example. After five years of public consultation and review, the 76-square-mile Navitus Bay wind farm that would have floated more than 100 turbines off the southern English coast was killed in September. Andy Cummins, campaigns director for Surfers Against Sewage, a U.K.-based nonprofit environmental watchdog agency, worked closely with the Navitus Bay developers to ensure they mitigated any impact on the local recreational resources.

Cummins hoped it could have been a precedent-setting case study for offshore wind power. “Ideally, it would have gone in and we could have congratulated them for putting in a responsible renewables program,” he said. “With wind farms, more than any other renewables, it comes down to visual impact. This was bordering a wealthy community and a world heritage site. Honestly, as much noise as the engagement of recreational water users made, the thing that stopped it was the visual impact.”

Trident Winds’ proposed site would begin 15 miles off the coast, far enough that the spinning blades would be invisible to someone sitting on the beach. Up in the hills above the California Central Coast, though, someday you might catch a glimpse of the future of clean energy.