Can floating wind get Calif. to carbon neutral?

Source: David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, February 28, 2019

The key to zero-carbon power in California might lie in the deep waters off its coast — or rather atop them, using floating wind turbines that churn out power as they bob along on the surface of the high seas.

That’s according to federal energy authorities, floating turbine developers and energy analysts, who say floating offshore wind technology could act as an important complement to other renewables, especially in the later stretches of the state’s journey toward a carbon-free grid.

“I think they’re going to need it,” said Walt Musial, principal engineer and manager for offshore wind at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

By 2045, California has to decarbonize its power supply under the terms of a law enacted last year. State regulators say they plan to consider a role for offshore wind power in 2021, when they’ll sketch out the energy mix for the next five years.

“I think they can get most of the way to their 100 percent goal, but they’re going to need the diversity and extra resources coming in that they can’t completely get from building out solar and land-based wind resources,” said Musial.

But the military’s activities along large swaths of the California coast, in addition to rival claims from the merchant shipping and fishing industries, have complicated the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s (BOEM) efforts to set aside lease areas for floating wind turbine companies.

In an assessment released last fall, the Department of Defense said wind development in two of the three call areas, located off California’s Central Coast, was incompatible with the military’s ongoing activities. The third area, off northern Humboldt County, rated as compatible with some but not all military uses.

Much of what the military does in those coastal waters is secretive. But in some areas, it carries out live fire operations and training for rapid deployment, according to DOD spokesman Steven Chung.

Chung said the department was considering “different flexibilities that may exist operationally,” including areas it can avoid.

Ultimate jurisdiction belongs to BOEM, but the agency has asked Defense officials to further examine “a more targeted, refined area” where floating turbines might coexist with the military, he added.

“We anticipate [a final determination] should be forthcoming shortly,” said Chung.

Why does the state need it?

On the East Coast of the U.S., where Europe’s offshore wind industry has been extending tendrils, developers can build fixed-bottom turbines far from shore, because the water stays relatively shallow.

That’s not the case on the West Coast: For California, the center of industry activity, floating turbines aren’t a second-wave technology, they’re the only way to generate offshore wind power.

Proponents also like to point out how much energy could technically be generated along California’s coast, if the military’s assessment were disregarded. NREL says its net capacity is about 112 gigawatts, with an overall power potential that would well exceed the total amount of electricity generated for Californians in 2017.

Realistically, power from floating wind would probably make up just a fraction of the state’s generation, said Peter Alstone, an environmental engineer at Humboldt State University and a faculty scientist at the school’s Schatz Energy Research Center.

But the strong, steady winds blowing off the deep waters would provide a reliable stream of power well into the evening and throughout the winter, anchoring supplies at times when solar generation thins.

It might also deliver new jobs. A report from clean energy think tank American Jobs Project published last week estimated the industry and downstream industries could support 17,500 new jobs in California by 2045.

The drawback is a familiar one for early-stage renewables: The power tends to be pricey, costing as much as three times more than solar and onshore wind.

At present, some community choice aggregators (CCAs) are eager to buy it, penning letters of support to BOEM for two proposed projects in the Central Coast and Humboldt County call areas.

The developers of those projects filed unsolicited applications to BOEM for the right to build them in 2017 and 2018, prompting the agency to take public comment on establishing leases in those call areas. The full docket of comments was published earlier this month.

In the case of the project off Humboldt County, known as Redwood Coast Offshore Wind, the CCA is both part of the developing consortium and, most likely, the main off-taker of the power it produces.

Nancy Stephenson, community strategies manager for the Redwood Coast Energy Authority, acknowledged the initial cost of power from the 100-150-megawatt project would “probably be above current market prices for other established [renewables].”

But the cost of floating turbines would likely follow the same downward trajectory of traditional offshore turbines, she added, echoing Energy Department officials who have said floating technologies could hit cost parity with fixed-bottom turbines by 2030.

California’s renewable energy goals created a need to diversify and complement “over-abundant” solar resources, she wrote in an email.

“[O]ffshore wind is our greatest, untapped opportunity,” she said.