Now that ambitious goal-setter Gov. Jerry Brown has left office, it’ll be up to new Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration to start implementing Brown’s goal to wean California off fossil fuels and shift to an all-renewables energy matrix by 2045.
In this space, it’s Newsom’s job to declare whether the state should get onboard with a new offshore-wind plan released by the Berkeley-based American Jobs Project (AJP) in February. “We hope that state policy leaders take a look at this,” says Mary Collins, managing director and co-founder of the AJP.
The report endorses two wind farms currently under consideration for development—one near Morro Bay and another off the Humboldt County coast—that could add some 18,000 jobs in California by 2045. The report suggests utilizing cutting-edge offshore windmill technology—huge floating windmills with massive fins tethered to the ocean floor. It also theorizes about future technologies, such as giant wind-catching kites to fully leverage the renewable promise of wind energy.
The Morro Bay wind farm, known as the Wind Castle project, would be just south of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and the idea has prompted questions about how turbines would affect wildlife in federally protected waters. Federal regulators are analyzing the proposal.
There’s even a possibility that wind turbines could one day appear within the state’s actual coastal marine sanctuaries, says Paul Michel, superintendent for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The sanctuary stretches from San Luis Obispo County to Marin County’s Rocky Point, 7 miles north of the Golden Gate. Oil drilling is prohibited in the sanctuary, barring what would be a shocking reversal from the feds, with required congressional approval. But Michel, who works under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), says that sanctuary officials are working on a permitting process that could potentially allow wind farms into these protected areas.
The AJP proposal, though, avoids suggesting wind farms in protected areas altogether—including in the sanctuaries, says Collins. She adds that the biggest potential hurdles AJP’s ideas face might be from the U.S. Navy, which does offshore training.
The AJP proposal notes that offshore wind projects could sync with the growing community choice energy (CCE) movement, where counties and regions are determining their energy future through a mix of renewables. The energy could be procured by CCEs like the newly launched Monterey Bay Community Power (MBCP).
MBCP already sources from carbon-free and renewable energy, and its current power mix is more than 70 percent hydropower, with the remaining 30 percent coming from other renewables like wind and solar. MBCP will be increasing the amount of wind through a long-term contract with a new wind farm being built in New Mexico. The group is interested in expanding wind energy, and is excited about the potential of offshore wind, including the Castle Wind proposal near Morro Bay, says Shelly Whitworth, MBCP’s energy communications specialist.
The AJP report arrives as the state is engaged in multiple legislative efforts and discussions about how to upgrade its electric grid, especially in light of the recent catastrophic wildfires, which put energy utility PG&E at the center of a controversy over safety. CCEs rely on that same grid to deliver renewable energy to its customers.
Newsom has championed an all-of-the-above approach to energy since entering office. As lieutenant governor, he chaired the Lands Commission, and in a 2017 statement said that, “we must continue diversifying our energy supply—that means increasing our output of solar, wind, geothermal, hydro and ocean-based energy.”
The AJP is a nonprofit economic development think tank. Founded by former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, it’s based in Berkeley, with additional offices in the Washington, D.C. area. The organization has been engaged in New Green Deal-type work in 24 states over the past five years, but this is its first foray into California climate-change waters.
The AJP California Offshore Wind Project: A Vision for Industry Growth proposal came about because of the 2045 goal set by Brown, which Newsom recommitted to on his first day in office, and because the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) started the leasing process for offshore wind-farms development last year.
As a result of these intersecting forces, says Collins, “We could see a federal lease as early as 2020 in California waters.”
The AJP pored over the details in its exhaustive offshore-wind project paper and blueprint for California energy independence—interviewing fishermen, hearing input from environmental groups, getting the public-private ball rolling, and engaging in discussions with the Department of Defense. The group made sure that organized labor also had a seat at the table.
The report comes with the promise of thousands of permanent jobs in the renewable and clean-energy industry—and with Google, Shell and Apple, all pledging big-ticket investment interest in the California project.
Historically, onshore- and offshore-wind projects have been fraught with concerns over negative interactions with birds. President Donald Trump decried bird fatalities when he complained about views being impacted by windmills located off the shore of his Scotland golf course. Trump’s administration has also called for a renewed push on offshore gas and oil development in California and elsewhere.
Last June, Congress introduced a trio of bills designed to give a jumpstart to an American offshore-wind industry that’s lagging behind Europe’s, including one that set the BOEM leasing protocols in motion.
Fishermen, and especially trawlers, have been wary of offshore wind farms because of the potential negative impacts on where they can fish, and their gear getting torn up by windmills. But there’s been sort of a sea change in recent years with offshore-wind farms, as the graver existential issue of global climate catastrophe has trumped concerns about pelicans flying into windmill blades.
The East Coast has led the way in offshore-wind projects in the U.S., but for many years, commercial fishermen along the Atlantic were among the biggest critics, impeding development of a long-proposed wind farm off the coast of Rhode Island and New York. That project came online a couple of years ago, and fishermen there are now charging windmill tourists for a boat ride to go check out the turbines, Collins says.
California fishermen were at the table when the project was conceived, she adds, and have since been part of an intergovernmental task force created at the beginning of the BOEM wind-farm lease process in 2016.
She believes land-bound aesthetics won’t be an issue, given that the turbines will be tethered about 20 miles offshore and out of view—or barely visible—from land.
Collins says that major environmental groups—the Sierra Club, the National Resources Defense Fund—have submitted comments under a lease proposal that indicates that they’re open to offshore-wind farm development. The overall gist of their comments, she says, indicates that “they are not against it but want it to happen in the right way”—meaning the way that doesn’t unduly mess with marine life.