The California Energy Commission released a new map this month identifying offshore wind areas deemed compatible with U.S. military operations, but developers say there wouldn't be enough space to create a viable market off California's Central Coast.

The increasingly ambitious U.S. offshore wind industry continues to receive mixed signals about California. Despite the enormous wind energy potential off California’s coasts in the central and northern areas of the state, it lags far behind its East Coast peers in establishing projects. Potential offshore conflicts with Department of Defense operations loom over any discussion of a future California market.

Yet there are many positive signs. The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) may hold an auction for offshore wind lease areas in California later this year. And with floating offshore wind technology gaining momentum in Europe, and California in need of vast amounts of renewable power to meet its climate goals, many in the offshore wind industry see the state as an important future market.

Last August, Monterey Bay Community Power, a community-choice aggregator, signed a memorandum of understanding with Castle Wind LLC, a joint venture of EnBW North America and Trident Winds Inc., to explore buying electricity from a 1,000-megawatt floating offshore wind farm to be sited about 30 miles off California’s Central Coast.

The Central Coast holds particularly strong appeal for developers because of its abundant offshore wind resource and the availability of onshore grid interconnection points. In that region, the Morro Bay Power Plant, a large gas-fired facility, closed in 2014. The Diablo Canyon Power Plant, California’s last operating nuclear generating station, with around 2,300 megawatts of capacity, is set to close by 2025.

"An important step"

In October 2018, BOEM published a solicitation (PDF) asking wind developers to express interest in three “call areas” — one off the shore of Humboldt County in Northern California and two off the shore of the Central Coast. Fourteen developers, many of them industry leaders at the global level, submitted nominations for the portions of the call areas for which they wished to obtain commercial leases.

But the Department of Defense made it clear that offshore wind development in the Morro Bay and Diablo Canyon Call Areas would interfere with military operations and training on the Central Coast.

In response to DOD’s concerns, U.S. Representative Salud Carbajal, whose coastal district stretches from Santa Barbara north to San Luis Obispo, convened a meeting last summer with local, state and federal officials, including DOD, to identify solutions that would enable wind energy development to move forward.

Those discussions resulted in the zones outlined on the new map (below). The working group identified portions of the existing Morro Bay Call Area, as well as zones to the north and south, that are regarded as being more compatible with the military activities in the area.

Source: CEC

In an emailed statement, Commissioner Karen Douglas, the CEC’s lead on discussions with the Navy, called the new map “an important step forward.”

She continued, “We value the Department of Defense’s ongoing commitment to work with us to develop viable pathways forward in light of the challenges the technology poses for Navy operations and look forward to hearing from the public about the potential areas identified by the working group as being more compatible with military activities.”

In an interview with Greentech Media, Steve Chung, the Navy’s encroachment program director for the Southwest region, said the zones identified in the new map still create impacts for Defense Department operations, but added that those impacts could be managed “with long-term protective measures and additional collaboration with some of our partners.”

“DOD is committed to moving forward with the dialogue, committed to being part of the solution toward helping California and our agency partners achieve their goals,” Chung said.

The working group did not discuss the second "call area," Diablo Canyon. According to Chung, there are often “complex” military operations ongoing in that area include live-fire exercises, and other stakeholders, including the commercial fishing industry, have expressed concerns about offshore wind development there.

Only enough space for "one small project"

Offshore wind industry representatives welcomed the DOD’s willingness to compromise but said a larger development zone would be needed to scale offshore wind power on the Central Coast.

“The new map is a starting point for discussion," Adam Stern, executive director of Offshore Wind California, said in an email. “There is still much work to be done to identify adequate space in the ocean so that a sustainable offshore wind industry can be established."

Offshore Wind California is a coalition of industry partners, including Avangrid Renewables, Equinor and Ørsted, that seeks the development of at least 10 gigawatts of offshore wind power in California by 2040.

Danielle Osborn Mills, director of the American Wind Energy Association of California, put it more bluntly: “The new maps released by the California Energy Commission do not yet identify adequate space for offshore wind production at the scale needed to create a viable industry — or for California to achieve its climate goals."

Mills noted that California and BOEM previously identified some 600 square miles of technically developable sea space on the Central Coast. "The new maps identify only about 80 square miles of non-continuous commercially viable sea space within the existing BOEM Morro Bay Call Area — enough for one small project,” she said in a statement.

The way forward for California offshore wind

The California Energy Commission is accepting comments on the new map through May 15, 2020. The DOD's Chung is hopeful that the public outreach process will yield additional opportunities to expand suitable offshore wind zones.

“Are there areas that may be farther north that have not been explored in the discussion that could be presented? That’s a possibility,” he said.

“The additional discussions...that will be carried out will shed some light on other interested stakeholders, the public, other organizations —  what have they considered? That may open up some additional areas that have not been previously considered.”

It’s even possible BOEM could choose to move forward with lease sales in areas such as the Diablo Canyon Call Area where DOD has expressed compatibility concerns.

“BOEM has the permitting authority and the purview within federal waters,” said Chung.

“We hope...[DOD] would give serious consideration to the input we provided to BOEM and...the state over the last four years...and our concerns and impact to national security within the congested areas off the Central Coast," he said.