Sale of jump start support for floating offshore wind energy in US waters

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Tuesday marks the first-ever U.S. auction of leases to develop commercial-scale floating wind farms in the deep waters off the West Coast.

The live online auction for the five leases – three off California’s Central Coast and two off the North Coast – has generated significant interest and 43 companies from around the world have been accepted to bid. The wind turbines will float about 25 miles offshore.

The growth of offshore wind power comes with the intensification of climate change and the growing need for clean energy. It’s also getting cheaper. According to a July report, the cost of offshore wind power development has fallen by 60% since 2010 by the International Renewable Energy Agency. In 2021 alone, it fell by 13%.

Offshore wind is well established in the UK and a few other countries but is just starting to grow off the shores of America and this is the nation’s first foray into floating wind turbines. So far, auctions have been held for those anchored to the seabed.

Europe has some floating offshore wind — a project in the North Sea has been operational since 2017 — but the potential for the technology is huge in high-wind areas off America’s coasts, said Josh Kaplowitz, vice president of offshore wind at American Clean Power Association .

“We know this works. We know this can meet a large part of our electricity needs and if we are to solve the climate crisis, we need to get as many clean electrons online as possible, especially with increasing load demand from electric vehicles,” he said. “Only with offshore wind as part of the puzzle can we achieve our greenhouse gas targets.”

Similar auctions are in the works off the Oregon coast next year and in the Gulf of Maine in 2024. President Joe Biden has set a goal Deliver 30 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2030 using traditional technology that secures wind turbines to the seabed, enough to power 10 million homes. Then in September the administration announced plans to develop floating platforms that could significantly expand offshore wind in the United States.

The country’s first offshore wind farm opened off the coast of Rhode Island in late 2016, allowing residents of the small Block Island to shut down five diesel generators. Wind power advocates have taken notice, but with five turbines, it’s not of commercial scale.

Globally, there were just 123 megawatts of floating offshore wind power in operation as of 2021, but that number is projected to increase to nearly 19 gigawatts — 150 times more — by 2030, according to a report last week from Offshore Wind California.

The California sale aims to promote a domestic supply chain and create unionized jobs. Bidders can convert a portion of their bids into credits that benefit those affected by wind development – local communities, tribes and commercial fishermen.

As planned, the turbines — potentially nearly as tall as the Eiffel Tower — will float on giant triangular platforms about the size of a small city block, or on floating cylinders with cables anchoring them underwater. They each have three blades longer than the distance from home plate to outfield on a baseball diamond, and must be assembled on land and towed upright to their destination on the open sea.

Modern large turbines, whether onshore or offshore, can produce more than 20 times more electricity than shorter machines, say from the early 1990s.

As for visibility, “in absolutely perfect conditions, crystal clear on the best days, you can potentially see little dots on the horizon at the highest point,” said Larry Oetker, executive director of the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Conservation and Recreation District, which owns its deepwater port for prepared the projects.

Offshore wind is a good complement to solar energy, which turns off at night. Winds far out at sea are stronger and more persistent, also picking up in the evenings when solar power is out but demand is high, said Jim Berger, a partner at Norton Rose Fulbright law firm, which specializes in financing renewable energy projects Has.

California has set itself the goal of being carbon neutral by 2045. But “when the sun goes down, we rely more on fossil fuel generation,” Berger said. “These projects are huge, so if you add a project or a few projects, you’re contributing significantly to the state’s power generation base,” he said.

The leases have the potential to generate 4.5 gigawatts of energy – enough for 1.5 million homes – and could bring big changes to communities in rural coastal regions closest to the leases.

In remote Humboldt County in Northern California, the offshore projects are expected to create more than 4,000,000 jobs and $38 million in state and local tax revenues in an area that has been economically troubled since the decline of the timber industry in the 1970s and 1980s, according to the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Conservation and Recreation District.

The district has already received $12 million from California to prepare its deepwater port for the possible assembly of the massive turbines, which are too tall to fit under most bridges when towed out to sea, said Oetker, the executive director of the district.

“We have hundreds of acres of vacant, unused commercial land right next to the existing shipping canal … and there are no overhead bridges or power lines or anything,” he said.

However, some are also skeptical about the projects, although they advocate a clean energy transition.

Environmentalists are concerned about the impact on threatened and vulnerable whales, which could become entangled in the cables that will anchor the turbines. There are also concerns that birds and bats will collide with the turbine blades and whales will be hit by ships towing components to the site. Federal regulators have imposed a boat speed limit of less than 12 miles per hour on the project to address those concerns, said Kristen Hislop, senior director of marine programs at the Environmental Defense Center.

“Floating offshore wind is brand new and there are only a few projects in the world and we don’t know how that will affect our shoreline,” she said.

Tribes in the vast coastal regions also worry about damage to their ancestral lands from turbine assembly plants and transmission infrastructure. They fear the farms will be visible from sacred prayer sites high in the mountains on a clear day.

Frankie Myers, vice chairman of the Yurok tribe, has attended four wind developer conferences in the past year. Tribes worked with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which oversees the leasing process, to secure a 5% loan that includes tribal communities for the first time, he said. The agency also helped with a cultural assessment of the potential impact on the view of holy places of prayer, he said.

The tribes are now getting involved so early because they are used to outside industries coming to them with promises that are not being fulfilled. They’ve seen things done wrong and knowing this windswept area well, they want it done right, he said.

“Before they even showed us the map, before they even showed us their breakdowns … we were like, ‘We know exactly where this is going,'” Myers said. “There is no question where the best wind comes from, we all know that. We have been here for a few thousand years.”


Follow Gillian Flaccus on Twitter here.


The Associated Press’s climate and environmental reporting is supported by several private foundations. Learn more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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