Going, going, gone: Feds hold first-ever auction for California offshore wind leases
Federal officials Tuesday will auction off leases for 583 square miles of ocean waters off California that could lead to the nation’s first massive floating wind farms.
The auction — the first on the West Coast — includes five sites in deep ocean waters about 20 miles off Morro Bay and Humboldt County. The leases are the first step in a years-long regulatory process that could culminate in the first commercial-scale floating wind turbines off California’s coast.
Offshore wind projects are considered critical to meeting California’s goals to provide a new source of carbon-free electricity, end reliance on fossil fuels and battle climate change.
“Today’s auction is great news for California’s offshore wind industry, workers, and electricity ratepayers,” said Adam Stern, executive director of Offshore Wind California, a trade group for industry developers and technology companies. “It’s the most consequential milestone yet for the Golden State’s efforts to make offshore wind a key part of its diverse clean energy future.”
The results of the auction, which begins at 7 a.m., will offer the first key signs for gauging how strong the market is for producing offshore wind off California. Forty-three companies, including industry leaders like the Danish company Ørsted, are eligible to bid on the leases offered by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which oversees offshore energy and mineral projects.
The waters to be auctioned off today have the potential to host several hundred turbines that produce more than 4.5 gigawatts to power about 1.5 million homes.
Experts say construction is at least five to six years away, and an array of unknowns must first be addressed by the companies: the high costs of construction, the logistics of producing the energy and bringing it to shore, and the environmental risks to marine life and commercial fisheries.
“There’s a lot of opportunities, but there’s also some challenges,” said Habib Dagher, executive director of the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center, who is helping develop the first offshore floating wind turbines in the U.S.
“California has deeper waters than any other areas with these floating turbines so far in the world,” he said. “How do you protect the environment, protect local stakeholders, protect the fisheries, protect indigenous communities, while also speeding up permitting so we make a difference with global climate change?”
Unlike current offshore wind turbines fixed to the ocean floor off the East Coast, California’s first-of-its-kind turbines would float on platforms anchored by cables in waters reaching about half a mile deep.
The turbines — hundreds of feet tall with blades that are bigger than a football field — would largely be out of sight from the shore, about 20 miles away. The Morro Bay lease area covers 376 square miles, while Humboldt’s is 207 square miles.
The state’s ambitious offshore wind targets build off President Joe Biden’s 2021 pledge to deploy 30 gigawatts of offshore wind nationally by 2030. Gov. Gavin Newsom hopes to add between 2 to 5 gigawatts of offshore wind off California’s coasts by 2030.
The state’s ultimate goal is to produce at least 25 gigawatts from offshore wind sources by 2045 – the boldest commitment any state has made. That could supply electricity for 25 million homes.
“Offshore wind is a critical component to achieving our world-leading clean energy goals and this sale is an historic step on California’s march toward a future free of fossil fuels,” Newsom said in a statement. “Together with leadership from the Biden-Harris Administration, we’re entering a new era of climate action and solutions that give our planet a new lease on life.”
How do offshore wind farms work?
Offshore wind turbines work similarly to land-based ones. Wind makes the turbine's blades spin around a rotor, which then turns a generator to produce electricity. The turbines send energy through cables under the seabed to an onshore substation, where the energy is converted to a higher voltage before being fed into the grid that provides electricity.
California’s offshore wind farms would be the first in the country constructed with floating platforms at a large scale. Europe has long been a leader in developing offshore wind technologies, including a few existing floating offshore wind farms.
The U.S. hopes to soon become another world leader in developing the technology, said Dagher of the University of Maine.