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Environment, Energy and Transportation

Interior eyes Oregon for offshore wind energy development

Two offshore wind turbines off the coast of Virginia Beach, Va., Monday, June 29, 2020.
Two offshore wind turbines off the coast of Virginia Beach, Va., Monday, June 29, 2020.

Oregon has some of the best wind resources in the country and already has a well-developed terrestrial wind energy industry, ranking ninth in the country for its production capacity.

The Biden administration has ambitious plans to expand offshore wind energy production in the United States in the next few years — and Oregon is poised to lead this clean-energy sector on the West Coast.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced last week that her department wants to lease up to seven tracts of federal waters for offshore wind farms by 2025 with hopes of producing about 30,000 megawatts of power by 2030. That would be enough to power tens of millions of homes.

“The Interior Department is laying out an ambitious roadmap as we advance the Administration’s plans to confront climate change, create good-paying jobs, and accelerate the nation’s transition to a cleaner energy future,” Haaland said at an energy conference in Boston.

The administration has identified Oregon as one of its ideal locations for offshore wind development along with California, the Gulf of Mexico and a large stretch of the East Coast.

We’re still a long way from seeing turbines dotting the oceanic horizon (that’s if their placement is close enough to be seen from shore at all), but Oregon State University associate professor of engineering Bryson Robertson says the announcement sends a strong signal to developers that the state is open for business.

“There’s a lot of reasons why people and companies are looking at Oregon as potentially a prime mover on the West Coast,” said Robertson, who co-directs the Pacific Marine Energy Center. “I just think we need to make sure we identify, as Oregonians, how are we going to maximize that benefit to our supply chains, to our coastal communities, to everyone and do it in a reliable fashion and a responsible fashion.”

Oregon has some of the best wind resources in the country and already has a well-developed terrestrial wind energy industry, ranking ninth in the country for its production capacity. The swirling arms of wind turbines are a familiar sight in the Northwest east of the Cascades.

However, land for wind energy development is in limited supply and “we’ve already hit the best spots” in many parts of the country, Robertson said. Wind made up less than 5% of Oregon’s electricity mix in 2019.

“As we start to get to these more aggressive and really needed targets for renewables,” Robertson said, “we need to figure out different ways to produce power and different places to produce it.”

The federal government is looking offshore. Wind is more consistent at sea than on land. Offshore turbines can also be built much larger than their earth-bound cousins.

Oregon is well-suited for offshore wind production in large part because of its existing electrical infrastructure, Robertson said, a lot of which neighbors California and Washington doesn’t have. Typically, utilities in Oregon generate power inland and deliver it to the coast via transmission lines.

“There’s no reason why we can’t sort of ‘turn the power around’ and send it from the coast into the valley,” Robertson said. “We do have that sort of backbone of electrical infrastructure to allow these companies to really only need to get [power] to shore.”

He added that Oregon has fewer users such as the military or commercial industries than other states competing for access to waters off its coast.

Work is already well underway to bring offshore wind development to Oregon.

Late this summer, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed a bill to commence planning for offshore wind facilities in federal waters to generate up to 3,000 megawatts by the Biden administration’s target date of 2030.

Last week, Oregon’s two U.S. senators, Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, announced a $2 million grant to OSU to study potential impacts of offshore wind developments to seabirds and marine mammals. Project leader Lisa Ballance, director of the school’s Marine Mammal Institute, says data gathered in the survey will help the Department of Energy site wind facilities.

“Our science is going to provide a lot of information for those decisions about where these wind energy platforms may sit,” Ballance said. “It will allow the industry to make informed decisions, much more informed in the context of marine mammals and seabirds than if our research were not going forward at all.”

The federal government approved the first large commercial offshore wind facility to be built off the coast of Massachusetts. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is actively reviewing construction and operations plans for nine additional offshore wind developments across the country.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.