Offshore wind farms are finally coming to the United States but don’t expect to see spinning blades off the shores of California any time soon.
While the industry predicts a clean-energy bonanza from the West Coast’s steady and powerful breezes that may go a long way to help the state meet its ambitious clean energy mandates, reaping the wind must first overcome a whirlwind of technological, economic and political challenges.
So far, just one company, Trident Winds LLC, has applied for a lease to construct an offshore facility in California.
But the Seattle-based company has laid out plans for a wind farm that would dwarf offshore sites proposed along the East Coast or the Great Lakes.
“Oceans present the largest amount of renewable energy to the planet,” said Alla Weinstein, founder of Trident Winds, which wants to place its wind farm off the coast of Morro Bay, along the Central Coast.
The company is targeting 2025 as its startup date.
That’s nine years beyond the expected debut this fall of the country’s first offshore wind project, the Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Rhode Island.
Other projects are expected to follow, in places such as Virginia, New Jersey and Cleveland — yes, Cleveland.
Why is the Golden State, a place so proud of its renewable energy record, lagging behind the rest of the country when it comes to offshore wind?
Blame the Pacific Ocean and its underwater terrain.
Unlike the Atlantic Ocean, where offshore wind farms can be bolted into the seabed in relatively shallow water, the West Coast’s continental shelf plunges quickly and steeply.
That leaves just one other option: floating wind farms.
“You have to talk about floating wind because the ocean floor is too deep to fix a turbine to it,” said Nancy Sopko, manager for advocacy and federal legislative affairs at the American Wind Energy Association.
Instead, floating wind projects are tethered, or moored, by cables to the ocean floor but don’t penetrate the surface.
While conventional offshore wind farms are common off the coast of European countries such as Denmark, Sopko said she’s not aware of any commercial floating wind projects operating at utility scale.
But Norwegian energy giant Statoil is about to start building a floating wind project in the North Sea, and the University of Maine has successfully tested a one-eighth scale prototype.
Trident Winds plans to build a floating array of about 100 wind turbines, each with a hub height of 400 feet — which works out to up to 600 feet in height when one of the turning blades is at the 12 o’clock position — some 33 nautical miles off Morro Bay.
One transmission cable running along the seafloor would send electricity to the shore by connecting to the Morro Bay substation owned by Pacific Gas and Electric.
“Bringing power from a resource that’s right off your coastline and can feed into the existing infrastructure onshore, that makes a lot of sense,” Weinstein said in a telephone interview.
Still in its early stages, the Trident project would have to go through an obstacle course of permitting, regulatory and environmental hearings on the federal, state, local and tribal levels before becoming a reality.
But there are signs of movement.
“While offshore renewable energy resources have not yet played a significant role in California’s energy system, they present important potential future opportunities,” Gov. Jerry Brown said in a recent letter to Sally Jewell, secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
In response, a task force is being formed by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which is also checking to see if other companies are interested in competing with Trident Winds for a potential lease.