Aug. 10—California regulators amped up the state's clean energy goals Wednesday by voting in new ambitious targets for offshore wind development.
The new targets, unanimously approved by the California Energy Commission, call for the state to produce 25 gigawatts from offshore wind by 2045 — which would be more than 11 times the capacity of the state's last remaining nuclear plant.
Academics at UC Berkeley believe that, with aggressive action, offshore wind could eventually account for a quarter of the state's electricity needs.
No offshore wind farms currently exist in the state, but the process is starting soon: By the end of this year, two sites in California, off Morro Bay (San Luis Obispo County) and Eureka (Humboldt County), will be up for auction. The sites have the potential to produce over 4.5 gigawatts of energy.
Future locations could include Cape Mendocino, an offshore area near the existing Humboldt Bay area, according to a California Energy Commission staff report.
"We have a once-in-a generation opportunity to transition to a new, clean and green energy in a way that could put thousands of Californians into high-skilled, well-paying jobs, and that opportunity, as we know, is just blowing 20 to 25 miles off our California coast," said David Chiu, a former state Assembly member who is now San Francisco city attorney, at the CEC meeting.
Offshore wind can be seen as a tantalizing untapped resource in a state with a windy, 1,000-mile coast, though the type that would be required in California, consisting of turbines built on floating platforms, doesn't yet exist in the United States. Such floating turbines — which would be necessary in California because of the depth of the ocean floor — are limited worldwide to around 11 projects in Europe and Asia, according to the Department of Energy.
Offshore wind farms already exist on the East Coast, but those are in shallower water and are drilled into the seafloor. The Biden administration's goal is to produce 30 gigawatts of offshore wind in the country by 2030.
But increasing offshore wind development also comes with environmental catches of its own. The federal climate bill or Inflation Reduction Act, which the U.S. Senate passed on Sunday and has been widely lauded by environmentalists as one of the nation's most important policy initiatives on climate, ties offshore wind expansion to continued fossil fuel production in that it would allow 60 million acres of offshore oil and gas drilling each year that new offshore wind development is approved.
"It's bad policy to link offshore oil leasing to offshore wind leasing, and we wish it wasn't in this otherwise good bill," said Kelsey Lamp, Protect our Oceans campaign director at Environment America.
The implications of the offshore wind-drilling tie may be less for California relative to coastlines elsewhere, since a large portion of the state coast where there are national marine sanctuaries would not be subject to gas and oil drilling. In addition, there are no proposals to drill for oil and gas in waters off California through at least 2028.
There are also concerns about how offshore wind development could impact commercial fishing and marine wildlife habitat, for example, since it requires cables that run down from the turbines to the sea floor.
"We must not consider just how much offshore wind but where and how its sited, deployed and operated," said Kate Kelly of the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, which helped draft AB 525, at the energy commission meeting. "Let's go big and bold with protecting wildlife and ecosystems as we go big with offshore wind development."
Questions remain about the expense of building floating wind farms and how that would be passed on to consumers. The UC Berkeley report concluded that 50 gigawatts of offshore wind could be produced without increasing wholesale electricity prices.
Proponents of offshore wind development say the state needs to balance its energy needs and to move off its reliance on fossil fuels, and that California can be a leader in floating offshore wind energy internationally.
"So far just this decade, we are seeing all around us the signs that climate change is happening," such as record-setting drought, wildfires and heat waves, said Laura Deehan, director of the nonprofit Environment California, at a press event Wednesday in support of the new wind energy goals. "We know that that is going to keep getting worse in our state unless we accelerate our way away from burning fossil fuels."
The energy commission's actions represent an increase from existing goals. In September, the state passed AB 525, authored by Chiu, which set a state goal of producing at least 10 gigawatts of offshore wind energy in California by 2045.
But the state's ambitions changed recently, especially after a recent UC Berkeley study determined it has the capacity to produce 50 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2045.
"If developed to their maximum potential, (offshore wind farms) could provide approximately 25 percent of the state's future electricity needs," the study found.
Gov. Gavin Newsom had also urged the energy commission to set a high goal.
"Because of the severity of the (climate) impacts California faces, we need to up our game," he wrote in a July letter to air regulators.
Tara Duggan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @taraduggan
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