Floating wind turbines set sail The Hywind project, located in the North Sea 29 miles off of Northern Scotland, is the first offshore wind energy farm where the turbines float above the seafloor on moorings. Begun in 2016, it started generating power a year later. Equinor
Anyone standing today on the bluffs of northern California’s Humboldt County and looking westward over the Pacific Ocean has a vision of both the region’s past — its fishermen, sailboats, beaches, its sunsets — and its possible future as a major energy producer.
That future is coming fast. On Sept. 15, President Biden announced plans for a major buildout of floating turbines, predicting they could produce 15 gigawatts of power by 2035. The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) will be taking bids from companies hoping to build up to 60 floating wind turbines located in the new 206-square-mile Humboldt Wind Energy Area.
Floating turbine technology — in which turbines are attached to a floating structure anchored or tethered to the seabed — allows wind turbines to be placed in deeper water than their fixed counterparts. Whereas the Vineyard Wind farm, which started construction off the coast of Massachusetts last year, will have wind turbines mounted on steel foundations in water 160 feet deep, the waters of the Humboldt site are almost 3,000 feet deep.
And while most offshore wind projects have been concentrated in Atlantic waters, the California Energy Commission believes that the strength of the winds blowing off its coasts — particularly the Humboldt County coast — are among the best in the country. As turbines are built out in the area, they could produce up to 1.6 gigawatts of power, about 50 percent more than the energy generation capacity of the Moss Landing Power Plant, until recently the state’s largest.
Future Pacific Coast offshore wind farms are part of the renewable-energy future championed by both Washington D.C. and Sacramento. The federal creation of the Humboldt Wind Energy Area and the upcoming lease sale that are part of a broad effort to expand renewable energy sources, serve also as a microcosm of the local tradeoffs.
Does more offshore wind mean fewer available fish?
Whether or not offshore wind is an important part of the broader shift towards renewables, fishermen see it as one more environmental initiative shrinking their fishing grounds. As Harrison Ibach, president of the Humboldt Fishermen’s Marketing Association, said: “Being involved with the fishing industry, it’s an uphill battle. That hill keeps getting steeper and steeper — whether it’s more regulations, which there always are, or these other projects that come through.”
Both the United States and California, commercial fish harvests have decreased over the last 40 years. The state’s annual harvest was almost 500,000 metric tons in 1980 and had dropped to 80,000 metric tons by 2016. On the northern California coast, fish harvests dropped from 47,500 metric tons in 1998 to 7,000 metric tons in 2017. There are 167 fishing boats working in the area, down from 858 in 1981.
Fishermen blame the decline on increasing environmental protections, though many protections were put in place in response to the overfishing that resulted in declining fish stocks. Ken Bates, Vice President of the Humboldt Fishermen’s Marketing Association, said: “If you were to look at the ocean and somebody gave you a map of the ocean off of California, and a black felt tip, and every place there was some kind of closure you started coloring it in. The entire map of California is black. There are closures on top of closures on top of closures.”
Declining revenues have led to a lack of investment. Once, Bates said, “[Eureka] had the largest cold storage on the west coast. All that stuff’s gone. Fort Bragg doesn’t even have a fuel dock anymore.” Other community members see the wind project and the $10 million in state funds to upgrade the port of Humboldt Bay as positives not just for the region, but also for the struggling fishing industry. Larry Oetker, director of the Humboldt Bay Harbor District, said: “The offshore wind industry will have impacts but it can also be compatible with the fishermen and actually improve overall port infrastructure and commercial fishing infrastructure.”
Would wind energy boost local economies or not?
The renovation of the Port of Humboldt alone is projected to create 830 jobs. “There will be a net benefit for the port and the commercial fishermen,” said Oetker.
Even though some residents and local economic experts are optimistic about the project’s impact on the local economy, others are skeptical. The worry is that international companies will displace local industry, as the list of approved bidders for the Humboldt lease includes Equinor, a Norwegian firm, Denmark’s Ørsted Wind, and Spain’s EDP Renewables.
These bidders may not be local, but they do have experience. The first floating offshore wind farm, built by Equinor Wind, started operations north of Scotland four years ago.
Matthew Marshall, whose Redwood Coast Energy Authority is a branch of the local government tasked with developing sustainable energy initiatives in the region, said, “there’s rightfully… skepticism of big giant companies coming in.” But, he added, he would “much rather work with somebody who’s actually built the floating wind turbine, and knows how to do it and has been successful.”
And in a globalized word, what does local mean? The wind companies are European but the electricity generated by the wind farm will remain in California. Fishing is a local industry, but the catch from Humboldt is sold around the world. As Bates tells it, “Most of the squid that gets caught in California, 90 percent of it goes to Asian countries because they eat a lot of squid. Americans don’t eat it. Albacore goes to Spain and France. Crab goes to China and Japan. Lobsters go to China.”
Offshore wind spent two decades overcoming opposition
In the United States, pushback against offshore wind is as old as the industry itself. The first project, Cape Wind, was proposed in 2001. Nantucket Sound, the proposed location, is surrounded by the old communities and vacation enclaves of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Island. Opponents included residents concerned about their views, fossil fuel interests, environmental groups, and commercial fishing interests. In 2017, some 16 years and 34 lawsuits later, the company abandoned the project. But Vineyard Wind now moves forward, and is expected to generate power next year.
The concerns about offshore wind are changing along with the technology. The most vocal Cape Wind opponents feared the turbines would destroy their views. Now, turbines can be sited further from land. The HWEA “call area” — a term federal energy officials use to designate a swath of ocean with significant winds — is located 21 miles offshore, compared to between four and 11 miles for the Cape Wind proposal.
Although there are still many unknowns about what the turbines built in the HWEA will look like, Arne Jacobson, a professor of Environmental Resources Engineering at Cal Poly Humboldt and a researcher for the Schatz Energy Center, said they will be about 800 to 900 feet tall, about the size of San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid and roughly twice the size of the turbines proposed at Cape Wind. Given their distance from the coast, however, they will hardly be visible from land.
“BOEM has been really careful to site this particular wind energy area off of Humboldt, out where you’ll barely be able to see the turbines,” said Ken Bates. “Basically, you might barely see them on a clear day. So they think that’s good, it’s all cool. But it’s also right in the middle of that community fishing grounds.”
Jack McMaster, a Humboldt fisherman, wondered, “Can we just go build these on land somewhere? A lot of fishermen, myself included, believe that the whole offshore wind thing is because … nobody wants to look at these big, giant windmills.”
Wind energy in the U.S. still in its early days, but the number of projects is accelerating
To date, the country has only two operational wind farms — one off Block Island in Rhode Island with five turbines and one off the Virginia coast with two, with a combined capacity of 42 megawatts. But things are changing. A 2021 analysis by the television station NBC10 Philadelphia reported 17 projects have received federal leases. Hundreds of turbines could be installed from North Carolina to Massachusetts. “We’re also anticipating a potential lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico, one in the central Atlantic and potentially one in the Gulf of Maine,” said Jennifer Miller, the Pacific renewable energy section chief at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
The Biden administration has set a goal of generating 30 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind power by 2030. The Humboldt sale will be the first on the Pacific coast. Three lease packages are being readied in California, two off the north coast (including Humboldt) and one in Morro Bay, along the central coast. The Federal agency BOEM is also looking at Oregon waters.
Fishermen worry not only about the impact of turbines but about the rapid pace of the lease activity. The limited experience with actual wind farms — the seven turbines now operating off the East Coast — may not be enough to evaluate all the current plans, they said. “We’re ready to put in, what, 600 square miles of wind farms off the California coast without having any idea of what is going to happen,” said Mike Conroy, Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and the West Coast Fisheries Consultants.
He and others worry not just about the number of leases being sold, but also about the size of the packages. Two factors determine the large area of the wind farms like the Humboldt Wind Energy Area. One: a desire to give developers flexibility in choosing the spots they think are best for their turbines. Two: ensuring an operation’s profitability. “If the areas were made too tight, then you don’t have the flexibility to once you actually get in there and start looking at the seafloor and all the other environmental concerns, “ said Matthew Marshall, of the Redwood Coast Energy Authority. “It’s like having some room to move around.”
Wind farms must be large to be profitable, since the fixed costs of site assessment and construction are large. “You need to have enough project capacity to spread that out and make it worthwhile,” Marshall said. Arne Jacobson agreed. “The economics are very tied to scale,” he said. “There’s a lot of fixed costs associated with preparing to set up and deploy these types of systems. ”So, he said, “it’d be really tough to put in small floating offshore wind farms.”
“There’s a lot of fixed costs associated with preparing to set up and deploy these types of systems. So it’d be really tough to put in small floating offshore wind farms.”
Concerns about the project’s impact are manifold, including construction impacts, engineering failures, navigation and safety concerns, and disruption of marine life. The most basic, yet most pressing concern, however, is the diminution of fishing grounds in the call area. “We don’t want to lose ground is the main thing,” said Harrison Ibach.
BOEM maintains that the call area is not of economic importance to the fishing industry, while fishermen maintain that the agency’s data is not accurate and misses catch from smaller vessels. But there is no argument that the transmission cables necessary to bring the energy to shore will impact fishing grounds, particularly those of bottom-dwelling dungeness crab.
Regulators cleared the Humboldt project but fishermen feel unheard
The government set the boundaries of the wind energy area using information gathered from public comments about everything from wind speeds to potential impacts on the Coast Guard to environmental concerns. A recently completed review from the California Coastal Commission and an environmental assessment by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management cleared the way for a lease sale this fall.
Fishermen wish they had a greater say when the location was set and resent what they see as an unfair playing field at public meetings. “What [fishermen] are vehemently opposed to is the process being utilized today,” said Mike Conroy of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.
Industry representatives and state and federal officials are paid to be there; fishermen are not. “I am actively fishing as hard as I can,” said Harrison Ibach, of the Humboldt Fishermen’s Marketing Association. It’s difficult, he continued, “to fish full time and have to volunteer so much time, effort and energy into this process that we don’t get paid for.” “It’s volunteer work. It’s a whole job in and of itself,” trying to minimize the impacts to the fishing industry.
They feel their public comments do not actually change what has already been proposed. “It’s only to check the box to just say that fishermen have been a part of the process, when in reality there hasn’t been a lot of involvement with the fishermen,” said Ibach.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management maintains that they have adequately engaged with the fishing community. “We’ve tried our best to reach out and connect with the commercial fishing industry and individuals,” said Jennifer Miller, BOEM Pacific renewable energy section chief. “[We] really try to hear their voice and understand how we can make the two industries mutually coexist.”
Lane Johnston, programs manager at the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, a fishing industry lobbying group, said: “the process feels like it’s shutting out the industry from participatory governance, which is what the industry is used to for management of their own fisheries.” She feels there is “a different approach between offshore wind farms and fisheries.”
Despite feeling unheard throughout the call area determination process, the commercial fishing industry has received unique attention in Humboldt, likely because of its importance to Humboldt’s culture, even if its economic impact has withered. “Commercial fishing and recreational fishing is an integral part of our cultural fabric,” said Larry Oetker. “It’s embedded in the heart of the community.”
Two requirements of the California Coastal Commission’s evaluation of the plan mention commercial fishing: federal agencies must ensure fishing vessels safe passage through the lease area and must require lessees to hire an “independent fisheries liaison.”
Will wind turbines affect undersea mixture of crucial nutrients?
All parties share concerns about the impacts of the wind farms on upwelling, because turbines diminish the velocity of offshore winds. Upwelling is a natural process by which wind pushes warmer surface water down and deeper, colder, more nutrient-rich water from below rises to take its place. It is important for biological productivity in the marine environment.
“When you’re extracting energy from the wind, you’re slowing down the wind,” said Cal Poly Humboldt’s Jacobson. “Of all the environmental concerns that have been raised to me, that’s the one that I think is potentially the most important one to pay close attention to,” he continued. “If you put too many turbines out there, how are you affecting these processes?”
“There’s only been a little bit of preliminary research on that,” he said, adding, “I think there absolutely needs to be more before there are multiple installations that are too large and are really close together.”
The offshore power industry acknowledges this will need to be monitored. Alla Weinstein, chief executive of Castle Wind, the company bidding for the Morro Bay lease, said, “I don’t think you ever know everything you need to know because it’s not possible.” Jacobson agreed. “It’s going to be really useful to have some things here that can be used to study that issue further.”
Conroy worries that rapidly building offshore wind farms could be history repeating itself. He feels the the benefits of this rapid industrialization might not be worth the potential harms that aren’t yet understood. “Thirty, 40, 50, 60 years ago we had to dam up every river, because hydroelectric energy was going to be the thing of the future. Cheap, renewable, great,” he said. “Today, we can’t wait to tear those dams down because of the impact they’ve had on the downstream communities, on salmon stocks in California in particular” and in other places along the Pacific Coast.
Jacobson is less concerned. “The turbines are a very mature technology,” he said. “[They] are fairly conventional turbines that are not really that different from the turbines that have been put on land or that have been put in offshore with big foundations.”
Ultimately, the fishermen want to use this first Pacific lease as a way to change the lease sale process for the better. Conroy said: “To the extent that Humboldt and Morro Bay can be demo projects, pilot projects, whatever you want to call them, to help inform future development off the West Coast. I think that’s the best-case scenario from a lot of different perspectives.”
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Staff and Contributors
Syler Peralta-Ramos is a member of the Stanford class of 2020. He has lived in Wilson, Wyoming his whole life and developed a keen interest in nature photography and conservation from a young age, inspired by the multitude of photographers that congregate in the Teton region as well as his parents who also share a love for photography.
‘& the West’ is published by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, which is dedicated to research, teaching, and journalism about the past, present, and future of the North American West.
Bruce E. Cain