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An opportunity for renewable energy: California offshore wind

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Environment California State Director Laura Deehan co-authored this blog post. 

On April 30, California got a glimpse of what a clean energy future could look like.

For about an hour, renewable energy sources produced as much electricity as the Golden State consumed. That’s a major milestone in the transition away from fossil fuels and an important piece of real-world evidence for the feasibility of an energy system running entirely on renewable sources.

But in order to run exclusively on renewable energy, California (and the rest of the country and the world) will need to tap into, and expand the use of, a variety of energy sources. Even in California, renewable energy (not including large hydropower) made up just a third of the state’s total power mix in 2020

One of the state’s largest potential clean energy resources isn’t “in” California at all, but rather just off the coast. Offshore wind energy has been generating clean electricity in other parts of the world for decades and California is taking the opening steps toward unlocking its massive potential.

Last week, the California Energy Commission (CEC) released a draft report setting out a preliminary goal of at least 10 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind capacity by 2045 and the beginnings of an offshore wind development plan for the state. From here, the CEC will assess the economic benefits of offshore wind and prepare a coordinated permitting plan, with a full roadmap for offshore wind development to be finalized by mid 2023. In addition, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is working towards auctioning two offshore wind lease areas near California’s coast for up to 4.5 gigawatts (GW) of generation capacity. [1]

Those efforts will only scratch the surface of California’s immense offshore wind energy resources. A recent study found that the state has a staggering 201 GW of technical potential for offshore wind. Not all of that potential can or should be used, of course, because some of it is in sensitive ocean ecosystems or areas designated for other important uses, but it illustrates just how large the resource is. At the same time, technological advances are resulting in better and better ways to take advantage of that potential: new floating wind turbine platforms that could be sited in California’s deep waters and new generations of bigger, more efficient turbines that can produce more electricity using less space.

Tapping just a small share of the state’s offshore wind potential could make a big difference to California’s energy system. A recent analysis found that building 10 GW of offshore wind capacity – equal to 5% of California’s technical potential – could generate up to $1 billion in cost savings and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 4.73 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent annually by 2040 – equivalent to taking over 1 million of today’s cars off the road for a year. [2] The CEC’s draft report targets at least 10 GW by 2045, but allows the possibility of aiming for 20 GW by 2050, which environmental advocates, including Environment California, trade unions and policy organizations are urging them to do. 

California is not the only U.S. state looking to offshore wind as the next big source of clean energy. President Biden and eight East Coast states have each made commitments to offshore wind (the federal goal is 30 GW and the eight state goals total 38.5 GW); lease sales and construction are beginning; and there’ll soon be U.S. assembly ports and installation vessels. All of that sets the stage for California to join the effort.

The CEC’s preliminary goal is a great first step, and the commission should finalize a maximally ambitious, feasible, environmentally sound and beneficial plan, which could target 20 GW (less than the 21.8 GW of technical potential found in just five potential lease areas) by 2045 and 5 GW (just slightly more than the 4.5 GW of potential in the two areas BOEM is planning to lease) by 2030. And even those targets would be significantly less than the 50 GW experts at the UC Berkeley Center for Environmental Public Policy argue the CEC should consider. Making and executing that plan will require mapping out the areas that need to be protected for ecological reasons or kept for other uses; making procurement agreements to ensure there is a market for the energy; planning and building transmission infrastructure to bring electricity generated at offshore wind farms onto the grid; and working with BOEM and local tribes and communities to ensure a thoughtful planning and development process. 

But there are big benefits to taking a bold approach to offshore wind, and with California experiencing climate change-fueled wildfires and drought, there is little time to waste. Beyond reducing our contribution to climate change, going big on offshore wind would mean less of the air pollution that currently puts nearly 40 million Californians at risk of serious health problems, as well as fewer of the spills and accidents resulting from our use of fossil fuels that damage fragile ecosystems and threaten public safety. 

Last month, Californians briefly experienced what a future powered by renewable energy can look like. Offshore wind is a key tool for achieving a future of cleaner air and a healthier climate, not just on one day, but every day. It’s time to put that tool to use.

[1] The Morro Bay Wind Energy Area is under environmental assessment, with a potential capacity just under 3 GW, and BOEM ruled that development in the Humboldt Wind Energy Area, with a potential capacity of 1.6 GW, would have no significant environmental impact.

[2] 10 GW is also what the California Energy Commission modeled for the clean energy pathways in their 2021 SB 100 Joint Agency Report, accessible at ​​https://www.energy.ca.gov/publications/2021/2021-sb-100-joint-agency-report-achieving-100-percent-clean-electricity.

Photo: A BW Ideol floating wind turbine in the Floatgen demonstration project off the coast of France. Credit: Lo83 via Wikimedia, CC-BY-SA-4.0.