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California dives into offshore wind market with first West Coast auction

Two offshore wind turbines next to each other in the middle of the ocean
Stephen Boutwell
/
Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
The Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind pilot project off the coast of Virginia Beach

The winners of the first offshore wind auction on the West Coast were announced Wednesday. The auction netted over $750 million dollars after two days of bidding.

Five companies won the rights to build the first large-scale floating offshore wind farms in North America.

The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management auctioned almost 400,000 acres of ocean off the coasts of Northern and Central California.

This week’s auction is the first step to help meet California’s goal of deploying 25 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2045.

President Biden has also set nationwide offshore wind goals, including deploying 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030, and an additional 15 gigawatts of floating offshore wind by 2035.

This project will meet almost a third of that goal when finished.

Dreaming of wind turbines

The idea for commercial offshore wind in Northern California picked up around 2016, when Matthew Marshall from the Redwood Coast Energy Authority began to promote the idea to federal agencies.

“I think we might have been a little bit of a catalyst to move things forward, sooner than they might have happened up here,” Marshall said.

As the executive director of the RCEA, Marshall is focused on sustainable and equitable energy production for Humboldt County. His organization decides where the county gets its electricity from.

The RCEA looked to the windy waters off their coast as a means of advancing their goals.

“In 2018, we selected a team of companies to work with because we realized, ‘Hey, we wanna see this move forward in a way that the community has a say in the process and is part of the decision making,’” Marshall said.

The RCEA provides community support and engagement, while their developer, Mainstream Renewables, has the funding to bid in an offshore wind auction.

In early 2021, the State of California and the U.S. Department of the Interior announced an agreement to speed up the sale of offshore wind leases near Eureka and Morro Bay.

Offshore wind auctions have attracted big names in the energy industry, including BP, Shell and Ørstead. Just one of six leases off the coast of New York was sold for a record $1.1 billion in February.

But offshore wind is much different on the West Coast. Developers won’t be able to put turbine foundations on the seafloor like they do in the East.

“So you have floating platforms that are anchored to the seafloor,” said Arne Jacobson from the Schatz Energy Research Center at Cal Poly Humboldt. “Those can go to much much deeper water situations. So everything on the West Coast is gonna be floating.”

Once deployed, the turbines will be the deepest offshore wind projects in North America.

Some sections of the Northern and Central California leases can be as deep as 1000 meters. For comparison, the depth of most areas along the East Coast are less than 100 meters, such as the Vineyard Wind project.

Jacobson adds none of the infrastructure on land has been built up either. The developers who win will have to build production facilities, expand ports, and lay new power lines.

Not a typical auction

Despite 43 bidders listed as eligible by BOEM, only seven showed up to Tuesday’s online auction.

Prices rose, from $6 million to nearly $200 million.

The auction continued for two days until two of the bidders finally dropped out, with a final cost of $757 million for all leases.The most expensive sold for $173 million to Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners.

Other leases were sold to German firm RWE, Norwegian Equinor, Ocean Winds (a joint venture between French Engie and Portuguese EDP) and U.S. based Invenergy.

The developer that RCEA has been working with, Mainstream Renewables, was not able to win one of the leases in Northern California. But, RCEA Executive Director Matthew Marshall said they’ll still work with the developers who won as they begin almost a decade-long project to get floating turbines in the water.

“There could have been some large market, multinational oil company or somebody that maybe wouldn’t leave as good a taste in everyone’s mouth,” he said. “Or at least they’d be a skeptical partner.”

Marshall said both the winners in Northern California were previously interested in the region. He’s optimistic they’ll be good companies to work with.

RWE has sent representatives to Humboldt County recently, to talk with members of the fishing industry and the rest of the community, and they’re a member of the Eureka Chamber of Commerce.

A portion of the funds the developers bid in the auction may go to investment in local communities, such as Humboldt County.

Developers were able to offset up to 30% of their bid through commitments to invest in local tribes, workforce training, infrastructure and the environment.

What’s next

The winning companies will now focus on building up the infrastructure needed to manufacture turbines and tow them out to sea. There are very few ports that meet the specific demands to build and deploy floating wind turbines.

“I don’t think there’s really anywhere else at this stage that’s very far along in being ready to do that,” said Arne Jacobson at the Schatz Energy Research Center. “Humboldt Bay is well situated to be the first and leading port for developing offshore wind on the West Coast.”

Jacobson said Humboldt Bay meets very specific requirements needed to build and ship floating wind turbines. Unlike those fixed to the seafloor, Jacobson said the floating turbines are built completely on land, and towed upright to their anchor-point. That means the port needs to be deep enough to support both ships and turbines, without a bridge blocking the way.

With turbines standing hundreds of feet tall and blades that can be longer than a football field, that means the San Francisco Bay – an otherwise likely candidate – is out of the running because of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Leases in Central California won’t face as big of a roadblock regarding energy transmission. Humboldt County will require huge powerline upgrades to deliver the energy to the rest of the state.

“On the other hand, there’s not an obvious port on the Central Coast from which to deploy offshore wind,” Jacobson said. “So I think it’s quite possible that the port that will be used to assemble and deploy offshore wind systems for the Central Coast will be Humboldt Bay.”

Humboldt County has faced an economic downturn from the loss of manufacturing and most notably, the timber industry. Those losses have left abandoned mills and warehouses dotting the coast.

Marshall says it could take nearly eight years for turbines to start producing enough electricity to sell beyond Humboldt County. Next, developers will begin planning and going through the permitting process before they can actually start building turbines.

Offshore wind could be the next industry to revitalize the Northern California coast. Marshall says the goal of RCEA is to ensure the wind industry is here to stay, and that the huge investments in renewable energy will bring benefits to the local economy.

After graduating from Oregon State University, Roman came to JPR as part of the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism in 2019. He then joined Delaware Public Media as a Report For America fellow before returning to the west coast.