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California offshore wind could save billions and help prevent blackouts. What’s holding it back?

A new study highlights the myriad benefits of offshore wind — and the major infrastructure barriers to building it along the West Coast.
By Jeff St. John

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Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) wants the state to do for deep-water floating offshore wind what his administration’s Million Solar Roofs initiative helped do for rooftop solar: bring a nascent clean energy technology to massive scale.

Offshore wind has great potential to provide huge amounts of clean energy,” Schwarzenegger said in a Wednesday webinar highlighting new research on the topic. It will make our grid more resilient so we never have to worry about blackouts again.”

That’s an optimistic, if reasonably well-founded, take on the findings of a new report from the University of Southern California’s Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, the think tank founded in 2012 by the movie-star-turned-politician and climate advocate. The report finds major benefits linked to — and some serious challenges in the way of — growing the state’s offshore wind from nothing today to 10 gigawatts by 2040.

Energy cost savings amounting to $1 billion to $2 billion through 2040 would be the primary benefit of this massive offshore wind growth, USC professor and report co-author Adam Rose said during Wednesday’s event. Offshore wind could deliver steady and predictable amounts of carbon-free power, reducing the need for the most expensive aspects of reaching California’s mandate of a carbon-free grid by 2045, such as building expensive batteries to store the state’s growing solar power.

Shoring up California’s grid reliability

Offshore winds blow strongest in the evenings, which could make gigawatts’ worth of offshore wind farms a vital grid reliability resource at the same times of day that solar power fades away and threatens the reliability of California’s electricity supply, California Energy Commission Chair David Hochschild said at Wednesday’s event. That could reduce reliance on polluting natural-gas-fired generators now being kept open past their planned retirement date to serve the state’s increasingly stressed grid.

Tapping the ocean could also dramatically lessen the demand for open land to build terrestrial solar and wind farms to meet California’s needs, he said. I would argue that, after rooftop solar, offshore wind is the most low-impact energy resource.”

A joint report released in 2019 by California agencies identified the potential for up to 10 GW of offshore wind to help the state meet its mandate of hitting a carbon-free energy mix by 2045. That target is now part of legislation being debated in the state capitol, Assembly Bill 525. The bill would order state agencies to prepare a strategic plan to harness the power of offshore wind,” said California Assemblymember David Chiu (D), a co-sponsor of the bill, at Wednesday’s event.

Just 20 to 30 miles off our coasts, we have access to one of the world’s greatest resources of untapped energy,” he said. But California is behind the rest of the world, and frankly, the rest of the country,” in tapping its offshore wind resources.

Expanding offshore wind from East Coast shallows to California’s deep waters

The Biden administration has set a goal of 30 GW of U.S. offshore wind by 2030 and 100 GW by midcentury. To date, the vast majority of that development has focused on the Atlantic coast, where shallower waters allow wind turbines to be embedded directly in the ocean floor.

More than 29 GW of wind projects are in the energy plans of states stretching from Massachusetts to North Carolina, including the largest U.S. project permitted to date, the $2 billion, 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind project.

Off the West Coast, where the water is deeper, the technology of choice would be wind turbines built on floating platforms. The potential for floating offshore wind farms could dwarf the 30-plus gigawatts of fixed-bottom offshore wind turbines already deployed globally, according to U.S. Department of Energy estimates. But the floating wind industry is still in its infancy, with less than 100 megawatts of capacity deployed so far and only one 30-megawatt project in Scotland in commercial operation.

The value of California’s offshore wind will depend on these early-stage technologies proving themselves and falling in cost, Rose said. The report uses National Renewable Energy Laboratory forecasts that see floating wind falling to cost parity with fixed-bottom offshore wind turbines over the next decade, he pointed out.

Meanwhile, long-standing conflicts over the impacts that offshore wind could have on California’s coastal ecologies and U.S. military operations have begun to be worked out. In May, the Biden administration announced an agreement with state and federal agencies that could open up parts of California’s northern and central coastlines to offshore wind leases as early as next year.

Those offshore regions include 3 GW of potential capacity about 30 miles off the Central California coast, as well as 1.6 GW of capacity off the coast of Humboldt County in the northern part of the state.

California has roughly 21 gigawatts of potential capacity in these and other ocean regions identified by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the federal agency responsible for permitting offshore wind projects.

Image credit: USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy

California has only recently started to include offshore wind as an option in its energy planning. The California Public Utilities Commission’s recent modeling determined that 1.6 gigawatts of offshore wind could be cost-effectively included in its overall energy mix by 2030 under its most aggressive carbon-reduction pathway. Rose also believes that reductions in floating wind cost projections could increase this value in future modeling.

Economic benefits extend beyond energy costs, according to the Schwarzenegger Institute report. Construction jobs associated with building and deploying the wind turbines, manufacturing facilities and port infrastructure involved could drive between 97,000 and 195,000 job-years” through 2040, along with 4,000 to 4,500 permanent jobs to operate and maintain the infrastructure, Rose said.

But formidable barriers could slow — or even prevent — the buildout of offshore wind along the West Coast

Building the infrastructure to support this workforce will be a major challenge, USC professor and report co-author Dan Wei said at Wednesday’s event. Floating offshore wind platforms require specialized manufacturing facilities and supply chains that are only beginning to be built up in Europe, home of the world’s largest offshore wind industry.

California will also need major investments in seaports for assembling these platforms and serving the specialized ships that will install them far off the coast, Wei said. East Coast states have been dedicating hundreds of millions of dollars to build the port infrastructure needed for their offshore wind plans.

The spending bill passed by Congress in December includes tax credits for offshore wind projects that could help reduce the costs of California’s buildout, Chiu said. Some Democrats in Congress are seeking to extend those tax credits to investments in offshore wind port infrastructure — but that will depend on whether they can get the provision into the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill, and then on whether the bill can garner the needed support from moderate Democrats to squeak through.

Lack of transmission could also be a hindrance

Transmission grid capacity is also a key barrier, Wei said. California’s central coast region has significant transmission capacity in place; it was installed to serve already-closed or set-to-close coastal power plants, including the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. But the northern coastal region, which has even greater overall offshore wind potential, will need significant new transmission to carry offshore wind power to the state’s larger grid, she said.

Building the transmission networks to carry power from offshore wind platforms to shore will also take years of planning, Wei said. Right now California’s transmission planning process needs to catch up with the massive clean energy and energy storage procurement ordered by the California Public Utilities Commission earlier this summer. A longer-range transmission planning process by state grid operator CAISO, which includes the 10 GW offshore wind target as one of many scenarios to examine, has just gotten underway this summer.

Assemblymember Chiu acknowledged the long path ahead to meet the 10 GW target his bill sets out, but he also highlighted the importance of getting started on the work in the context of years of heat waves and wildfires and rolling blackouts, and the fact that during this recession we’ve lost a million jobs.”

East Coast states right now have a combined pipeline of about 29 gigawatts [of offshore wind]. California has put zero gigawatts on the map right now,” Chiu said. We have to take advantage of this moment.”

(Lead photo: Jeff Gritchen/​Digital First Media/​Orange County Register via Getty Images)

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.