Ocean wind farms are essential to electrify California’s grid with 100% clean energy. But they’re a giant, costly experiment — no one knows how hundreds of towering turbines will transform the remote North Coast.
EUREKA — If the American West represents the “geography of hope,” as author Wallace Stegner wrote, then what better place than California’s far north to illustrate the eternal tension between the limitless potential of big ideas and the brutal disappointment of broken dreams?
The Golden State’s verdant North Coast, a great empire of trees and home to the Yurok, the state’s largest Native American tribe, has seen centuries of boom and bust — riches taken from above and beneath the earth. When gold miners brought their nuggets from the foothills to the coast, Eureka’s broad bay became a bustling transit hub.
After the gold was gone, it was replaced with timber, “red gold.” The region’s massive redwoods made many locals rich; when the forests were clear cut, the pulp mills came. They, too, went bust. Dams harnessed the region’s rushing rivers to produce electricity, causing the collapse of its prized salmon runs. A “green” cannabis revolution arrived, promising to bring a balm to this depressed place. But a glut of legal weed flooded the market, leaving the plants to wither along with the growers’ dreams of wealth.
Now, once again, the siren call of capturing the North Coast’s natural resources beckons dreamers and speculators, this time the treasure lies far off the rugged coast of Humboldt and Del Norte counties. Its promise: The Pacific Ocean — which feeds us, modulates our weather and delivers our goods — will provide clean, renewable energy from its powerful winds.
The tantalizing possibility of capturing wind energy from giant floating ocean platforms is considered essential to achieving California’s ambitious goal of electrifying its grid with 100% zero-carbon energy. The state’s blueprint envisions offshore wind farms producing 25 gigawatts of electricity by 2045, powering 25 million homes and providing about 13% of the power supply.
A new gold rush doesn’t begin to describe the urgency of harnessing wind off California when it comes to meeting climate goals. The first, substantial step has been taken: Last December, the federal government auctioned off 583 square miles of ocean waters off Humboldt Bay and the Central Coast’s Morro Bay to five energy companies — with more lease sales expected. The five wind farms will hold hundreds of giant turbines, each about 900 feet high, as tall as a 70-story building.
The projects will be a giant experiment: No other floating wind operations are in such deep waters. From China to Rhode Island, about 250 offshore wind farms are operating around the world, mostly in shallow waters close to shore and secured to the ocean floor. But the areas off California with the strongest winds are far from shore and too deep for traditional platforms, so developers are planning clusters of floating platforms about 20 miles off the coast, in waters more than a half-mile deep and tethered by cables.
The depth, distance from shore and new floating technology drive up the costs and complicate an already expansive process. Massive infusions of private and public money will be needed. And it likely will be a decade or longer before any major wind farms off California begin to produce power: The companies will spend up to five years preparing technical plans and analyzing environmental impacts of each project. Then federal and state review and permitting could take two or more years, and construction could last five or more years.
Each of the wind farms off Humboldt and Morro Bay will require an extensive network of offshore and onshore development, including miles of undersea transmission lines, expanded ports, new or upgraded onshore substations and electrical distribution networks. They would provide power to 1.5 million homes.
But the still-evolving technology of floating wind farms makes it challenging to analyze the viability and impacts of these projects. Experts say a lack of existing data on potential environmental effects means that much of the scientific understanding will only begin after they are operating.
“There’s no pretending this isn’t a massive enterprise that the state of California is in the process of embracing,” said Adam Stern, executive director of Offshore Wind California, an industry group.
“We cannot sugarcoat it. There are massive hurdles we need to work on. We need to wrestle these challenges to the ground and come up with work plans. That’s starting to happen. We have to help and support the leaseholders in getting their projects off the ground.”
A CalMatters analysis shows that California’s offshore wind projects carry a host of implications and uncertainties:
- Energy companies will need hundreds of millions of dollars in state subsidies or bonds to assist with the extreme costs of construction and operation. Each wind farm could cost about $5 billion to develop, construct and assemble.
- Wind farms require an unprecedented industrialization of the coast, with millions in public funds to expand and upgrade ports, harbors and support facilities.
- No one knows how wind farms will affect migrating whales and other marine mammals and seabirds. Although other offshore wind operations around the world have had minimal impact, they are not directly analogous to the Pacific Ocean or floating platforms, which have cables and lines that could entangle whales.
- Commercial fishing operations are likely to face some degree of restricted access to leased waters, which include some of the state’s most productive fisheries.
- Local communities will bear social costs and strains on infrastructure, such as higher housing costs and utility upgrades.
- Building transmission lines and related infrastructure to distribute the new wind power carries a price tag of as much as $8 billion in California and at least $700 billion nationwide.
- Private investments and public funds totaling more than $260 billion will be needed by 2045 to improve the industry’s supply chains — the parts and materials, such as rotors and turbines — to achieve the nation’s clean energy goals.
- The state government could become the largest customer for offshore wind power, since it can be locked into long-term contracts for what is likely to be expensive electricity under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
- Estimates of the cost of the power are speculative and vary widely, and the initial rates could be high — as much as $133 per megawatt hour, according to a federal analysis, compared to $34 for land-based wind.
Rather than being motivated by a can-do spirit, wind development off California is propelled by a must-do mandate. The five companies already paid the U.S. Treasury $757.1 million to lease the tracts off California.
Powering an expansive economy free of fossil fuels by 2045 means the state must triple its power generation capacity and deploy new solar and wind energy at almost five times the pace of the past decade.
“There is an undeniable urgency,” said David Hochschild, chair of the California Energy Commission. “California has had unprecedented climate challenges. There is a fierce urgency to respond. We have to stop being academic on this. We have to build.”
It’s a leap into the unknown for officials at the California Coastal Commission, which is one of the state agencies responsible for reviewing the potential environmental impacts of these projects.
“There's a great deal of uncertainty in all aspects of planning of offshore wind,” said Kate Huckelbridge, executive director of the Coastal Commission, which has legal jurisdiction from the sea to the sand and will handle much of the analysis and permitting.
Huckelbridge, an environmental engineer, said the agency has experience understanding how large structures in the ocean affect the marine environment — think offshore oil rigs. But a wind platform — each holding a towering turbine with spinning blades as big as one-and-a half football fields — is of another magnitude.
“The scale is one of the differences that we have to get our head around,” Huckelbridge said. “All components of these turbines are on a scale we haven't seen before anywhere in the world. Even though we know the questions to ask, the answers are not clear.”
A new state law streamlines the environmental approval process by consolidating analyses by multiple state agencies and jurisdictions. The State Lands Commission will be the lead agency for the environmental review, while the Coastal Commission is responsible for issuing a coastal development permit.
California’s offshore power generation will feed into a federal goal of 15 gigawatts by 2035. The Biden administration calls the rush to claim this new energy frontier the “Floating Offshore Wind Shot,” invoking the memory of the Moon Shot and the enormous collective effort to put an American on the moon.
Welcoming with open arms — but fingers crossed
Scott Adair strode brightly into a conference room on a cold and misty summer morning. Thoughtful and earnest, Adair had been musing about his county’s Next Big Thing.
Two areas off Humboldt already have been leased for wind farms that will hold perhaps 50 or more turbines each, and the region is expected to host most of California’s future projects. Wind there is strong and reliable, and, while the region badly needs a transmission upgrade, it also has room to accommodate new infrastructure.
As the county’s director of economic development, Adair marvels at offshore wind towers as “fantastical” structures that could boost employment and growth. But he’s giving deep thought to everything the industry may portend for his struggling community.
Nearly a fifth of Humboldt County households live in poverty, and the region is near the top of indicators that suggest times are tough. The county has a net out-migration, with more and more residents leaving to look for jobs or a cheaper place to live. Adair cites the rueful in-joke: Humboldt’s greatest export is its smart kids.
Unlike other communities along the California coast where NIMBYism dominates the conversation, the Humboldt coast is eager to accommodate wind farms. Although the employment projections careen all over the place, from a few hundred to several thousand new jobs, even a small economic gain can have a welcome, profound effect in a rural area.
And yet, perhaps because of the region’s history of exploiting forests until they disappeared, with the mop-up left to locals, there is vigilance. “We are cautious about the flimflam, if you will, the over-promisers,” Adair said.
Adair is clear-eyed about the region’s role as host to what will be a sudden and massive development, with more lease areas expected to follow.
“This is a federal project that is happening to us,” Adair said. “We have a limited ability to be involved and to help steer or shape the outcomes of the project.”
To Adair, the potential windfall is tempered by the unknown. “This is an opportunity on a magnitude and scale that I don't think we have seen or experienced before, in decades, perhaps in the last century,” he said. “It's massive, it's huge, metaphorically, but literally.”
In March Humboldt supervisors discussed the potential economic boon and cost to the county, and invested $850,000 to study how to prepare, including workforce training, legal support and supply chain analysis.
The supervisors said they are excited about the possibilities, but they also worry about the pitfalls and are bracing for disappointment. “I go into this with my eyes wide open,” said Supervisor Rex Bohn. “I pray this happens. I hope like hell this happens.”
Up the coast, the Yurok Tribe is feeling a tug of deja vu: outsiders dangling promises of money and jobs in return for natural resources.
“I'm an Indigenous person. I've already seen this playbook before,” said Phillip Williams, a Yurok Tribal Council member.
The Yurok, the largest Native American tribe in California with more than 6,500 members, battled 18th century settlers for their ancestral lands that span the sprawling 16,000-square-mile Klamath River watershed.
Williams said many in the region have been “blinded by dollars.”
“Everybody's lining up. It's almost like there's a predator. ‘Okay, these guys are weak. We can come in here and take advantage of this community that’s this desperate for dollars, because they've already depleted all their natural resources. What else can we extract from these communities, and these communities are so desperate, that they're willing to jump off the bridge blind, in hopes that there's gold at the bottom,’” he said.
Like other communities along the North Coast, Williams said the Yuroks need sustainable jobs, but not at any cost. More than a third of tribal members live below the poverty line, 60% of them children.
“We are trying desperately to create jobs and an economy here,” Williams said. “We could jump off the bridge just like everybody else, join the bandwagon. A lot of very smart people are saying, ‘let's jump in.’ Yurok, we’re not motivated by money. We're not willing to sell our resources for money. We've already done that and we've seen the result of it.”
Developers must establish community development funds and employment training programs — potentially millions of dollars — under the conditions of their federal leases. Among the nonprofits and other community groups angling to manage the windfall, Adair likens the situation to “sharks circling the water to get money from developers.”
How can the community embrace the opportunity without allowing the potential growth to drive up the cost of living and housing or over-tax community services? Adair said the local government’s capacity to administer even a slice of the wind energy bureaucracy is limited.
The county is already short 3,000 housing units, and he doesn’t know where the skilled workers will come from in a region that he estimates has only 100 master electricians. And he wonders what will happen to other construction projects, large and small, should the wind terminal construction siphon the localized workforce.
Like many local leaders, Adair has been on a crash course to educate himself about offshore wind technology, binging online seminars at night and on weekends.
“It seems as though, from our perspective, that Washington is putting undue pressure and responsibility on the community and the developers to figure this all out. It's a fast track,” he said, adding that he’s talked to local leaders in Europe, where offshore wind is growing. “We're hearing a common theme: Slow it down. Take your time to really understand it so that you get it right. ”
It’s a sentiment shared by Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek, who in June sent a letter to federal officials asking for a pause in the offshore wind program there until more information on environmental and economic impacts are known. The feds have identified some 1,800 square miles of potential wind lease areas off the Oregon coast.
“You know, we were given this gift of this potentially massive economic opportunity,” Adair said. “And it might, it might have some real energy benefits to it as well. But we aren’t necessarily equipped to or capable of receiving that gift, at least not at this scale. We need to be careful.”
Support or subsidy? Green power requires a lot of of green
As with any new technology, the early costs to launch are high. Subsidies are part of a standard playbook to help bootstrap new technology: offering support until a business can stand on its feet. Because floating offshore wind is critical to federal and state clean-energy goals, taxpayers and ratepayers will subsidize some of the private companies’ financial risk, at least at the beginning.
If getting wind power to market in California just meant bringing electrons to shore, it would be a massively ambitious undertaking requiring technology that in some cases has yet to be developed. But the effort is further complicated by what’s required once the power hits land — much of the means to move it does not now exist.
California will have to restructure its electricity grid to handle and distribute the new power. The national transition to a net-zero carbon economy will require a financial injection from the private sector and state agencies to double the state’s existing transmission infrastructure, at a cost of at least $700 billion in new investment by 2050, according to a recent UC Berkeley report.
Private companies must create a supply chain for parts and materials that are not yet available in the United States. A small fraction of the blades, turbines and other parts that make up the wind turbines are made in the United States, and almost none are manufactured in California, according to a report to the Energy Commission.
Supply chain investments will require more than $260 billion by 2045 to reach the nation’s offshore wind production goals, the UC Berkeley researchers found. They also envision bottlenecks in port capacity and finding the vessels to tow and install the platforms at sea.
The researchers’ conclusion: The challenges are immense, but not insurmountable.
A Department of Energy offshore wind market report, published in August, predicted the wind industry would have a rocky start followed by a bright future.
So far, it’s been turbulent: Rising capital costs and interest rates, as well as supply chain volatility, are buffeting the industry. The costs per kilowatt-hour over the life of a project increased nearly 50% between 2021 and 2023, according to a recent Bloomberg analysis.
And interest from companies in building the projects has been unpredictable. Last month, a federal lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico garnered a tepid response. Only one of three areas was bid upon and the bid-per-acre was just $55, compared to an average of $2,028 per acre for the California leases.
That pales in comparison to the $8,313 per acre for leases in the New York Bight earlier this year. The $4.37 billion that companies paid for six offshore wind leases off New York and New Jersey in February was the largest amount ever paid for U.S. offshore energy leases — including for oil and gas.
Given the capital risks, the floating offshore wind industry expects government help. And it’s getting it.
State and federal officials are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into grants for industry research and development, various tax incentives and assistance to build this new industry. So far the California Energy Commission has spent more than $100 million in support of offshore wind, according to the agency. Projects also may qualify for tax credits that can offset 30% or more of development costs.
“There will be creative financing solutions,” said Molly Croll, Pacific offshore wind director for American Clean Power, a renewable industry association. “We are going to need state money and we are going to need federal money. We can make this the industry that puts California at the center of a global industry.”
A new law allows the Department of Water Resources to purchase offshore wind power to signal to the industry that there will be buyers.
While the department has a track record of procuring power, it’s not a laudable one. During the energy crisis of the early 2000s, it entered into long-term energy contracts at a cost of more than $40 billion, which was subsequently found to be unreasonably high.
No estimates are available for how much purchasing the wind power could cost the state or ratepayers, although the bill’s supporters say that ultimately Californians will save money in their electric bills.
Wind developers lobbied hard for the legislation this year. Sam Eaton, chief executive officer of RWE Offshore Holdings, which holds one of the leases off Humboldt, said having California as an assured buyer for future wind power shows the state’s long-term support for the industry.
“It’s central to be able to see that kind of support to be able to make ultimately tens of billions of dollars of investment in a market,” Eaton said. “Our investors would not want us to take that kind of risk otherwise.”
Wind developers point out that offshore wind will deliver electricity later in the day, when solar plants are going offline and demand ramps up. They also note that the cost will drop over time, a demonstrable trend with other renewable technologies.
State Sen. Brian Dahle, a Republican from Redding, wants renewable energy but questions the unknown cost to consumers.
“This is just like the bullet train. We are just going to do it because, by golly, we are just going to do it,” he said. “We are going to pass on the cost to the ratepayers and we have the highest electric bills in the nation. This is going to break the state.”
The importance of bigger ports
Ports will play a significant, as-yet unfilled role in supporting offshore wind, to assemble the platforms and maintain service fleets and vast repair yards.
State officials acknowledge that no ports in the state are ready to do the job. Getting them ready could mean turning swaths of California’s coast into industrial zones.
The Port of Long Beach is the only California port even remotely prepared to handle the wind energy workload. The busy port has proposed Pier Wind, a 400-acre offshore wind turbine assembly terminal with a price tag of $4.7 billion. Construction could begin in four years, and even after the terminal is built, it's only feasible to deliver the turbines as far as the Central Coast, which would require a barge to tow the structures for two days on open seas.
The Long Beach port’s CEO, Mario Cordero, said he expects funding from the state Energy Commission to help prepare the new facility.
“It’s assumed that there’s going to be public funds,” Cordero said. “This requires a collaborative effort. It is a long-term endeavor. At the pace we’re going, all the levers have to be pulled.”
One lever has already released $45 million in state funds for port upgrades around the state to prepare for wind construction and support.
At the other end of the state, there's another option. From his office, Rob Holmlund, the Humboldt Bay Harbor District’s development director, has a wide view of pleasure craft bobbing at docks and the blighted remains of a once-thriving industrial zone. Those hundreds of acres of empty space are the port’s main attraction for the wind industry — it’s the second-largest natural bay in California.
The harbor district has received more than $10 million from the Energy Commission to study proposals to transform much of the former industrial site to a sprawling, modern wind terminal. Large cranes would put the pieces of turbines together then tugs or ships would move the floating islands through the harbor and out to sea. The harbor also would maintain a fleet of boats to service the platforms. Humboldt officials intend to hire a contractor to operate the harbor as a green facility with electric vehicles and equipment.
“There's old buildings everywhere and it's a visual blight that will be cleaned up and revitalized,“ Holmlund said, adding that the harbor entrance will be dredged more regularly.
Another hurdle for ports: Federal law requires any vessel delivering goods or people from one U.S. site to another to be built, owned and primarily crewed by U.S. citizens. The number of compliant ships available to do the job is minuscule: A federal analysis found only seven craft that meet the requirements.
Even after overcoming the substantial hurdles of getting the wind-generated power to shore, it will be a monumental task to gather the electricity in substations and distribute it over transmission and distribution lines to users.
Grid experts refer to California’s far north as a transmission choke point. Humboldt County residents, accustomed to living behind the so-called Redwood Curtain and enduring periodic power cuts, refer to themselves as “the end of the line.”
“There is no way in hell that the current lines that we have available are going to be able to take on the additional load,” state Sen. Mike McGuire, a Democrat from Healdsburg, said in a legislative committee hearing in May.
The state’s grid manager estimates the build-out cost for additional high-voltage transmission capacity will be about $8 billion, part of a total of $30 billion needed to bring in out-of-state wind power and upgrade the overall grid capacity to meet California’s decarbonization goals.
Because of an eight-to-10-year lead time to construct transmission projects, the new power may wait at the shoreline while the lines and transmission plants to move it are put in place.
“It requires significant new infrastructure. Not just wires, but substations and towers and transformers,” said Himali Parmar, an interconnection and transmission expert at the consulting firm ICF. “There are massive goals to meet and transmission is a big part of the puzzle.”
However, Parmar added that California’s 20-year power planning horizon makes her optimistic that the challenge can be met.
‘A deep sense of foreboding’ for fishermen
Ken Bates’ office is idling at the dock at the foot of F Street in Eureka. The sleek fishing boat, most of which he built, is the workplace for Bates and his wife Linda, who make their livelihood on the Pacific, chasing fish for weeks or months at sea.
It’s a business with challenging economics, defined by narrow margins and a fluctuating resources. For commercial fishermen working the California coast, it’s been a long, slow decline. Pacific fisheries are highly managed to prevent overfishing. The salmon season was canceled this year statewide because of severely low populations, for example.
As Bates motors away from shore, he says he supports renewable energy, noting that his home is solar-powered. But he and others in his trade worry that commercial fishermen and women will be restricted while working in Humboldt’s 200-square-mile lease area.
The wind projects “have the potential to adversely affect fishing and fishermen through exclusion and displacement from fishing grounds, increase costs and time at sea to reach new fishing grounds, loss of future fishing grounds and loss or disruption of harbor space and fishing infrastructure at ports,” according to a Coastal Commission staff report last year.
Even if accommodations are made to allow some fishing, the fishermen and women worry that trawling boats might need to steer clear of the floating rigs to avoid snarling their nets in the networks of cables and lines.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife told the State Lands Commission that the impacts could be “potentially significant.”
“Offshore wind energy generation is a novel concept in California’s marine waters. Floating technologies are also still relatively new, and much is unknown about their environmental impacts,” the agency wrote.
“Adverse impacts to commercial and recreational fisheries could result from the loss of accessible fishing area, loss of fishing gear from snagging on Project infrastructure, navigational hazards, and/or degradation of habitat. The Project sites overlap with fishing grounds for several important fisheries.”
There’s also a potential flip side: Fish populations could increase if fishing declines, and the permanent structures in the sea could provide habitat for more and different species, marine biologists say.
Some project developers are discussing a system of compensation payments to fishermen, whose concern is about more than losing one fishing season.
Bates and other fishermen purchase “limited entry” permits that give them rights to work in waters not open to non-permit holders. The special permits are enormously valuable: A limited entry shrimp permit is worth $1 million, Bates said.
“If we can’t fish, that shrimp permit is worth nothing,” Bates said, peering through his boat’s spattered windscreen. “Those permits are the 401Ks for fishermen. They could lose their retirement, everything they’ve saved for.”
If fishermen are displaced from their traditional grounds they may move elsewhere and create localized overfishing, said Steve Scheiblauer, a longtime harbormaster in Santa Cruz and Monterey and now a marine fisheries consultant.
“There is a deep sense of foreboding,” he said, mentioning cascading effects through the region’s fishing-based economy. “There’s deckhands. Truck drivers. Can fish buyers in Eureka keep their doors open if they lose their main supply? A fish buyer is also the ice producer. Restaurants and tourists expect the fish. Commercial fishing is a link to the waterfront. We need to slow down and get some data.”
‘We have to attempt this’
Mike Wilson sips a beer at a dockside restaurant on the Humboldt harbor and squints into the setting sun. Wilson is a county supervisor and a member of the Coastal Commision, where he’s a reliable voice for the environment.
He’s sympathetic to skeptics of the promise of offshore wind, the sometimes-inflated job numbers and rosy promises of economic revival. But even with the unknowns about impacts to marine life and the prospect of industrialization of this remote coast, Wilson says offshore wind power must go forward.
He starts from a simple baseline calculation: Climate change and its ever-increasing calamities. The pressing need to phase-out fossil fuels, and their mounting environmental harm, outweighs what is not yet known about the biological and environmental impacts of large-scale offshore wind, he said.
“I don't have any comfort at all with the climate impacts we are seeing now,“ Wilson said. “All my discomfort (with the unknown) is outweighed by the urgency if we do nothing. We have to attempt this.”
The Coastal Commission’s Huckelbridge and other state scientists acknowledge some concern with not having enough time or budget to minutely analyze the potential impacts of offshore wind.
But they add that through “adaptive management” — the ability to adjust policies and requirements as conditions change — detrimental effects can be avoided or mitigated. And, they say, environmental conditions will be monitored throughout the lifespan of the wind farms.
“We have our responsibility under the Coastal Act to assess impacts,” Huckelbridge said. “We understand the urgency and will move with all haste. But we will do our job. We owe that to California.”