How a wind-energy project proposed off CA’s Morro Bay’s coast would work

Source: By Stephanie Finucane, The Tribune • Posted: Friday, September 25, 2015

Wind farms in waters off the California coast could get their start in Morro Bay if one energy company’s vision for 100 floating turbines 15 miles offshore comes to fruition

 In a generation or two, offshore wind farms could be as common along the California coast as offshore oil rigs are today. And Morro Bay could be the community where the offshore wind industry gets its start in the Golden State.

Trident Winds LLC has approached the city of Morro Bay with a proposal to install about 100 floating turbines 15 miles offshore. It’s a 1,000-megawatt project that would produce enough energy to power 150,000 households. The turbines would rise 360 to 400 feet above sea level, would cover about 63 square miles and would be spaced about half-a-mile apart.

The company is negotiating with the city for use of the outfall line at the northeast side of Morro Rock. A transmission cable would run from the wind farm through the pipeline and on to the Morro Bay Power Plant switchyard, which is connected to the state power grid.

Morro Bay was chosen both for its constant offshore winds and because the existing infrastructure minimizes the onshore work that would be required.

“We would literally have no disturbance on the beach at all,” said Alla Weinstein, a co-founder of Trident Energy.

She was involved with a similar pilot project approved in Coos Bay, Ore. That’s the first project on the West Coast, though there are others planned on the East Coast, and one — a 30-megawatt, five-turbine project — is under construction off Rhode Island.

While the United States is just starting to embrace the technology, offshore wind farms already are powering homes and businesses in Europe, where there are an estimated 160 offshore farms either in operation, under construction or in the planning stage.

Those differ from the wind farms planned for the West Coast, though.

In most cases, wind turbines (what we often refer to as windmills) are fixed to the ocean floor in Europe, as well as on the East Coast of the United States.

On the West Coast, the ocean is too deep for that. The turbines will float on the surface of the water, where they’ll bob up and down with the waves, much as an anchored ship does.

None of this will happen quickly, though, at least not in California.

It took 2 1/2 years for the Coos Bay project to get through the permitting process, Weinstein said. She estimates it could take as long as five years to make it through California’s permitting process, since there are state regulatory agencies involved, including the California Coastal Commission and the State Lands Commission.

Trident has been laying the ground work. In addition to meeting with the city of Morro Bay, it’s been working with two groups that have a big stake in the issue: commercial fishermen and the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, which is seeking marine sanctuary status for the offshore area. It’s trying to meet with Dynegy, which still owns the shuttered Morro Bay Power Plant.

Trident also plans to sponsor a public meeting to introduce the project, possibly in late October or early November.

The applicants stress that the wind farms are key to reducing reliance on fossil fuels.

“It’s clean energy and more consistent than solar,” Weinstein said. “Wind is available 24 hours per day.”

Andrew Christie, executive director of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, was in agreement about the benefits of wind farms: “We’re all for them. It’s a great component of getting off fossil fuels.”

But as with all projects, there is a caveat: “It’s all about location and environmental sensitivity,” Christie said.

Bird and bat kill has been one of the big concerns about both onshore and offshore wind farms.

A peer-reviewed study issued last summer estimated turbines kill as many as 368,000 birds annually in North America, according to an article in USA Today, though the newspaper also noted that cats kill between 1.4 billion and 3.7 billion birds per year.

But it isn’t just the inadvertent loss-taking of birds that’s an issue. According to BirdLife International, offshore wind farms have caused migrating birds to change their routes. That can mean having to travel greater distances, which can affect the survival rates of hatchlings.

In response, there have been increasing calls for turbines designed to deter birds, as well as for locating wind farms outside of bird migration zones.

Weinstein said the turbines planned for Morro Bay will be safer for birds than older-model turbines. For one thing, the blades rotate more slowly in newer models, she said.

Visual impact has been another concern, but at 15 miles or more offshore, the turbines off the Morro Bay coastline won’t be visible from the beach.

Cost is another consideration: Wind power is often much more expensive than other types of energy. That’s been a sticking point with some potential customers.

“It’s nuts to spend all this money on power at three or more times the going cost,” was a comment that a Boston Globe reader offered in response to news that the $2.6 billion Cape Wind project off the coast of Massachusetts had stalled.

Weinstein declined to give a cost estimate for the Morro Bay project, though she said it’s quite different from the Cape Wind project, so the two should not be compared.

She also pointed out that Morro Bay’s project is so many years into the future, it’s “basically impossible to answer the question today.”

As proponents of wind power point out, the objective isn’t to produce power as cheaply as possible — it’s to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

“Cape Wind may not be cost-effective in the short term,” was the comment from another Boston Globe reader. “But, it is essential that Cape Wind and other projects in New England like it move forward so that New England can have a reliable and sustainable future in clean energy and once again be the guiding light for the rest of the nation.”