California has the potential to generate gigawatts of energy from floating offshore wind farms, helping to balance its power grid and reach its zero-carbon energy goals.
But reaching that potential will require solving a host of challenges. These include cutting costs and building the supporting infrastructure for the still-nascent floating wind turbine industry, as well as managing conflicts with military, fishing and environmental groups over the ocean waters that could host those turbines.
On Tuesday, the Biden administration took a first step toward realizing this West Coast potential, announcing an effort to align competing interests to allow the opening of offshore wind leases off the northern and central California coast by 2022. The identified regions could support up to 4.6 gigawatts of wind power over the next decade.
“Today’s announcement reflects months of active engagement and dedication between partners who are committed to advancing a clean energy future,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a prepared 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.”
One of the first targets is a 399-square-mile stretch of ocean about 30 miles off the coast of the Central California city of Morro Bay, which could support up to 3 GW of offshore wind. In 2019, 14 applications from potential developers were submitted to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which manages energy project leases in coastal waters.
A second area off the coast of Humboldt County, capable of supporting 1.6 GW of projects, received 10 applications in 2019. Another 11 applications were submitted for a Central Coast ocean tract, dubbed Diablo Canyon for its proximity to a nuclear power plant that is set to close in 2026.
California is scrambling to replace this lost nuclear capacity with a mix of renewable energy and batteries, as well as a quantity of as-yet-undetermined long-duration and dispatchable carbon-free resources to supply peaks in grid demand. One critical time period to cover is hot summer evenings, after the state's ample solar power supplies fade away. Offshore wind could supply evening and overnight power that could ease that supply-demand imbalance.
Despite the fit between offshore wind and California’s needs, it’s likely "not going to happen for eight or 10 years,” said Mohit Chhabra, senior scientist for The Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and clean energy program. That’s a reasonable timeframe for resolving the barriers to offshore development in sensitive waters and building a West Coast infrastructure for deploying offshore wind at scale.
This week’s announcement laid the groundwork for resolving one key dispute between the Defense Department, which conducts military operations in the ocean sites identified by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and the Interior Department, the parent agency of BOEM.
Colin Kahl, under secretary of defense for policy, told reporters at a Tuesday press conference that the department is “satisfied that there’s not a tradeoff between the clean energy goals of this endeavor and our military readiness.”
Floating wind turbines to boost offshore capacity
The Biden administration is pushing for 30 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2030, a target that could be met by speeding up gigawatts' worth of projects set for development along the East Coast. Earlier this month, BOEM approved final permits for the 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind project, which would dwarf the country’s two small-scale offshore wind projects, the 30-megawatt Block Island wind farm and Dominion Energy’s 12-megawatt Coastal Virginia project.
Contracts for more than 9 gigawatts of offshore wind projects have been awarded or are in final bidding off the coasts of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, and gigawatts more are being planned off the coasts of those states and Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.
The East Coast’s relatively shallow coastal waters can support fixed-bottom wind turbines embedded in the ocean floor. This technology accounts for the vast majority of the offshore wind deployed to date, including about 25 gigawatts in Europe.
California’s deep coastal waters require floating wind turbines, however, a technology that’s still in its early stages. A total of less than 100 megawatts of floating wind has been deployed to date, according to the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, with the 30-megawatt Hywind Scotland wind farm the only commercial-scale project.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory forecasts that floating offshore wind power costs will fall from $110 to $175 per megawatt-hour to $60 per megawatt-hour by 2032, however, as project experience is accumulated and economies of scale develop. This will bring floating turbines closer in price to fixed-bottom offshore wind projects, which now stand at an average of $90 per megawatt-hour and are expected to reach between $50 and $75 per megawatt-hour by 2030.
Being able to access deeper ocean waters could drastically expand the capacity for wind power across the globe. NREL estimates that there is approximately 2,000 GW of capacity for U.S. offshore wind, most of it in deeper waters. In Europe, floating wind turbines could add 4,000 GW of capacity, and in Japan, the technology could offer 500 gigawatts of capacity.
European wind power developers including Hywind developer Equinor are leading in the floating offshore field. To boost U.S. competitiveness in the field, the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program in 2019 directed $28 million toward floating wind project development. General Electric, maker of the Haliade-X wind turbines being used by the Vineyard Wind project, announced Tuesday that it’s involved in a $4 million project funded by ARPA-E to develop a 12 MW floating wind turbine platform.
(Article image courtesy of L.C. Nøttaasen)
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