Biden offshore wind plan relies on unproven tech. Will it work?

By David Iaconangelo, Anne C. Mulkern | 05/26/2021 07:07 AM EDT

An agreement yesterday among the Interior Department, California and the Department of Defense signals that a new kind of renewable power is set to emerge: floating offshore wind.

The Biden administration is pressing for offshore wind development off the coast of California that would use floating turbines like these, seen near Aberdeen, Scotland.

The Biden administration is pressing for offshore wind development off the coast of California that would use floating turbines like these, seen near Aberdeen, Scotland. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

An agreement yesterday among the Interior Department, California and the Department of Defense signals that a new kind of renewable power is set to emerge: floating offshore wind.

The White House announced the plan, which will open parts of California’s deep waters to offshore wind developers. That effectively means a truce in a yearslong turf battle led by the Navy and other branches of the military, which use some of the state’s southern and central waters for training activities (E&E News PM, May 25).

Under the agreement, Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) will be able to move ahead with groundwork culminating in mid-2022 to lease off Northern and central California waters for turbine construction.


As much as 4.6 gigawatts of electricity might one day be delivered into California’s grid from offshore turbines in those areas — enough for about 1.6 million homes, said the state’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom.

That’s more modest than what many East Coast states have planned for offshore wind. By comparison, 4.6 GW is about half of what’s on the horizon for offshore wind development in New York over the next decade and a half.

Yet California will likely have the distinction of being the first state in the country to host a full-scale industry of wind turbines mounted on floating platforms — a novel concept that remains at pilot stage globally.

"It’s an announcement that will set the stage for the long-term development of clean energy, and the growth of a brand-new made-in-America industry," said Gina McCarthy, national climate adviser, during a press call yesterday.

Tethered to the ocean floor, floating turbine platforms can be arrayed in areas where the water grows very deep.

For California, that feature is a necessity. Its Pacific waters plunge too far, too quickly for the traditional "fixed-bottom" type of offshore turbine, which sits on pilings driven into the ocean floor.

But federal researchers believe that floating technologies will prove useful across a far larger range of U.S. waters, including the East Coast hub of offshore wind.

"I would say it’s going to be equal to the participation of fixed-bottom technology," said Walt Musial, who leads offshore wind research at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

Over 60% of the viable offshore wind resources in the United States could only be tapped with floating wind, he estimated.

Building farther from shore, especially on the East Coast, could allow developers to harvest more blustery sites, far beyond the sightlines of coastal homeowners, and with fewer rivalries with shippers and fishermen, researchers say.

There’s much to be sorted out and improved before any of that happens, however.

Floating technology would come at a substantial premium throughout the 2020s, compared with fixed-bottom offshore power — and especially when compared to onshore wind, according to analyses by NREL.

Port infrastructure will have to be built out and the grid upgraded. And for some parts of the floating system, like the platforms on which the turbines sit, California will have to start from scratch when it comes to building a domestic supply chain.

"You want to have the Ford factory of floating turbines. And the Ford factory of floating turbines doesn’t exist today," said Habib Dagher, executive director of the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center.

Dagher is the university’s lead designer on a floating wind pilot called New England Aqua Ventus. His university, together with a joint venture involving a Mitsubishi subsidiary and backed by $100 million in initial funding, wants to launch the country’s first full-sized floating turbine in 2023 or 2024, in the Gulf of Maine. The project took root in an Energy Department grant.

Like state officials, Dagher wants a future wind industry to use key equipment — like the specially designed mooring systems and anchors, or the hulls on which turbines will sit — that’s fabricated in Maine itself.

"We don’t want to be importing hulls from Southeast Asia," said Dagher. "All of those technologies haven’t been done in the U.S. yet. We’re at the beginning of an industry that’s going to be born here."

‘Waiting for California to open’

Yesterday’s announcement spawned a wave of kudos from offshore wind advocates.

Heather Zichal, chief executive of the American Clean Power Association, called it "a historic step." And Liz Burdock, president of the Business Network for Offshore Wind, said her group would immediately begin assessing what kinds of state-level policies would be needed to support infrastructure and workforce training for the "still-developing" technology.

"As the fifth-largest economy in the world, the global offshore wind industry has been waiting for California to open," Burdock said.

The military’s sign-off on turbine development in central California lowered the chief barrier to floating offshore wind’s emergence. For years, Defense officials vacillated between outright defiance and deeply conditioned support for sharing space with offshore turbines. Last summer, negotiations between the military and offshore wind backers briefly went off the rails, causing one member of Congress and key organizer of the talks, Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.), to write legislation that would have cut the Navy out of the decisionmaking (Energywire, July 16, 2020)/

Carbajal, a former Marine who represents a central California district, said yesterday that he was "thrilled" with the agreement. Developers had pushed to preserve enough space off of central California, considered a choice region for turbines, to build at least 3 GW of power generation.

"The future is in renewable energy, and the Central Coast is leading the way," he said.

The plan comes as California wrestles with how to meet its mandate of 100% clean electricity by 2045, while ensuring grid stability as climate change triggers heat waves. Rolling blackouts hit the Golden State during two days last August when residents cranked on air conditioners and power demand topped projected supplies.

Utility regulators have ordered more energy storage and other potential solutions. Last week, the California Public Utilities Commission told utilities to procure another 11,500 megawatts of electricity to have ready by 2026.

That’s intended to be available when the state’s last nuclear plant — Diablo Canyon in San Luis Obispo County — goes offline by 2025, said Arne Olson, senior partner at E3, an energy consulting firm.

Diablo Canyon, when both units are running, generates about 2,200 MW. The offshore wind would generate a peak of 4,600 MW but tends to produce about 40% to 45% of the time, he said.

Moreover, offshore wind likely won’t immediately help meet any of the gap left when Diablo closes, because it will take as long as a decade to build the wind and needed connections, he said.

The offshore wind will be built in two locations, at Morro Bay, about 13 miles northwest of San Luis Obispo, and off Humboldt Bay, near the Oregon border.

The Morro Bay site is in the same general region as the Diablo Canyon plant, so there is some transmission infrastructure in place. But it will need bigger transmission lines or more transmission lines to import the power, Olson said. The Humboldt Bay site likely will need even more infrastructure upgrades to import the offshore wind’s power.

However, the offshore wind could help with the 2045 net-zero carbon mandate, he said.

"We’re a state with a lot of solar and some wind. It’s not as diverse a portfolio as we would like it to be," Olson said. "As we try to move toward 100% clean energy, we’re going to need resources that produce energy at night. Wind often does that."

Mohit Chhabra, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that offshore wind "can deflect overbuild of storage and solar, thereby saving money and being more environmentally friendly."

"Further, offshore wind is stronger in the winter when there’s greater energy demand for heating buildings, yet less sunshine," he said in an email.

The California Independent System Operator, which manages the grid, said it couldn’t comment on specifics about the offshore wind’s impact. "But wind is an important component of our renewable energy resource mix," said Anne Gonzales, a spokesperson at the ISO.

This story also appears in Climatewire.