Can Biden’s Plan to Boost Offshore Wind Spread West?

Offshore wind development in California has been stalled by politics and technological challenges. But on Tuesday, the administration announced plans to advance offshore wind in the state.

The GE-Alstom Block Island Wind Farm stands in the water off Block Island, Rhode Island, on Wednesday, Sept, 14, 2016. Credit: Eric Thayer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The GE-Alstom Block Island Wind Farm stands in the water off Block Island, Rhode Island, on Sept. 14, 2016. Credit: Eric Thayer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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In January 2016, Trident Winds, a small, Seattle-based wind company, submitted an unsolicited application to the U.S. Department of the Interior, laying out its aspirations to build a 1-gigawatt wind farm off California’s central coast.

The scale was ambitious, especially for the United States. But Trident Winds’ chief executive officer, Alla Weinstein, sensed an opportunity.

“Effectively, that’s what kickstarted the whole discussion on offshore wind in California,” Weinstein said of the application.

Years later, California’s waters still have no finalized leases for the development of any offshore wind farms. Instead, the state’s market has been bogged down by politics and technological hurdles.


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But on Tuesday, the Biden administration and the state announced a target to hold an auction in mid-2022 to award leases for wind development off California’s coast, a significant step towards encouraging the state’s stalled market. The effort would contribute to the administration’s recently-announced goal of reaching 30 gigawatts of offshore wind nationally by 2030, a target that seemed to favor the Northeast, which has already cultivated the foundations of a thriving offshore wind market. The United States currently has only about 42 megawatts of offshore wind capacity in operation. 

Given California’s leadership in clean energy and combating climate change, “it’s only fitting that California is totally unwilling to let the expansion we’re witnessing on the East Coast leave California behind,” said White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy, on a Tuesday call with reporters highlighting the Biden administration’s announcement. 

California has many qualities that would seem to make it an enticing location to build offshore wind: high power prices, cities along the coast ready to use the electricity and a solar-saturated grid, which makes wind a complementary resource when the sun isn’t shining. The state has more than 200 gigawatts of technical offshore wind potential, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, but current projections for offshore wind cast doubt on whether it can complete any projects in the next decade.

The state is now grappling with how to fit offshore wind into legislatively-mandated efforts to achieve 100 percent clean energy by 2045. Climate goals in numerous eastern states have hinged on significant offshore wind deployment, with plans to add more than 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2035.

A recently-introduced California bill would also help invigorate the state’s offshore wind market, directing energy regulators to establish offshore wind targets for 2030 and 2045. A similar bill is under consideration in Oregon, calling for up to 3 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030. The legislation, along with the federal administration’s efforts to coax California’s market forward, underscore the opportunity in Western waters, if politicians can seize it.

Proposed Areas for Offshore Wind Leasing

California has consistently been a frontrunner in clean energy deployments. Last month, a large swath of the state ran on 95 percent renewables for a brief four seconds—a milestone that reportedly sent chills of excitement down the spine of the state grid operator’s chief executive officer.

Solar accounts for a majority of California’s renewable resources, leaving an opening for a budding offshore wind market. Wind and solar work well together in an energy portfolio because wind generally continues to blow at night, while solar produces the most at the sunniest times of day. A 2021 report from the California Energy Commission suggested offshore wind should play a significant role in the state’s clean energy targets, accounting for as much as 10 gigawatts of capacity additions in coming decades.

As California gets closer to carbon-free electricity, it’s increasingly seeing the need for a wider array of technologies to balance solar production. “That’s where offshore wind fits in,” said Mohit Chhabra, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and clean energy program. 

California realized the potential for offshore wind years ago. Along with the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which manages offshore leasing, the state launched an Offshore Renewable Energy Task Force back in 2016, several months after Trident Winds filed its application with the Interior Department.

The federal agency went on to select three possible lease zones, known as “call areas,” off the California coast, and in 2018 asked companies to submit proposals for building in those areas. More than a dozen did, including some wind industry heavyweights like Avangrid Renewables and Norwegian oil major Equinor.

But since then, BOEM hasn’t leased any of California’s waters. The state’s lucrative fishing industry worried that turbines would disrupt business, while the Defense Department raised concerns about the impact on training exercises off the coast—opposition that held up lease sales. 

On Tuesday, the Biden administration said it had brokered a compromise on some of those issues. The Defense Department said it was committed to finding “creative solutions” to advance offshore wind in California. Overall, the initial development areas could support up to 4.6 gigawatts of floating offshore wind, according to the administration. 

“We at the Defense Department are satisfied that there’s not a trade-off between the clean energy goals of this endeavor and our military readiness,” said Dr. Colin Kahl, the under secretary of defense for policy, on the Tuesday call with press.

Holding lease sales is just one step in the extended process to begin building offshore wind farms, however. Project developers must also secure dozens of permits and survive government review to move forward.

Vineyard Wind, a project off the coast of Massachusetts, just won final federal approval in May. Its developers submitted plans to the government in 2017. A project planned for Lake Erie was proposed over a decade ago. The country’s first offshore wind project, Rhode Island’s Block Island, came online in 2016. Many more projects are now under federal review. 

That pace makes both the administration’s 2030 target and aspirations to build offshore wind off California’s coast in the next decade “a stretch,” said Oliver Metcalf, head of U.S. wind research at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The research firm expects the United States to add just 23 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030, with no projects off the coast of California by that year. 

‘California Open For Business’

The West’s challenges go beyond politics; the region’s deep waters require the use of floating offshore wind technology, where a buoyant platform is moored to the seafloor. Floating wind is currently more expensive and less common than fixed-bottom offshore wind, which is affixed to the ocean floor and could be used in much of the East Coast’s shallower waters.

Floating projects installed worldwide represented less than 100 megawatts combined at the end of 2019, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and most were pilot projects. Equinor, one of the companies that submitted a proposal to build off the coast of California, has one floating commercial project in operation off the coast of Scotland and another in the works in the Norwegian North Sea. 

Bloomberg forecasts the buildout of just 6.3 gigawatts of floating offshore wind worldwide by 2030, compared to about 200 gigawatts of fixed offshore wind projects.

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But the Biden administration’s Tuesday announcement bodes well for future development. NREL analysis suggests commercial floating projects could technically land in California waters as early as the mid-2020s, with costs dropping an estimated 44 percent between 2019 and 2032. Technology advancements and commercial growth driven by planned projects in Europe and Asia will also help the West Coast market.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom included $20 million for offshore wind development in his 2021-2022 budget request.

And Castle Wind, a joint venture Trident Winds entered into in 2018 with German power provider EnBW, has negotiated a “mutual benefits agreement” with the local fishing community near one of the California call areas, possibly curtailing the type of controversy that has dogged other offshore projects.

Assemblymember David Chiu, who introduced the California bill, hopes to seize on the momentum. The legislation, he said, “will let the country and the rest of the world know that California is open for business in this space.”

Some utilities and renewables developers are equally bullish. Castle Wind has already inked a tentative supply agreement with power provider Central Coast Community Energy. Weinstein, of Trident, hoped for a lease sale in 2021, but believes the state can execute on development by 2030. 

“I have no doubt that it can be done,” said Weinstein. “If there is a will, which I think the will is there, then yeah, we can find a way to do it.”

Metcalf, of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, agrees that offshore wind in the West “does seem to be a question of when, rather than if.” But it remains unclear if the timeline will align with the administration’s splashy target.

That 2030 target “is truly a national goal,” said Jocelyn Brown-Saracino, the offshore wind lead at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Wind Energy Technologies Office. To nudge along progress on the West Coast, the department has invested more than $100 million in research on and development of floating offshore wind. It’s working with BOEM to gather data in California waters and funding floating offshore wind demonstrations off the East Coast, with the expectation that what it learns will translate to the West. In 2019, DOE launched a program to design “radically new” floating wind turbines. 

As soon as auctions happen, Trident’s Weinstein said, “then we can move.” 

“I think at this point, we’re on the verge of seeing significant movement in California,” she said. “This is the beginning of a much longer path to the expansion of offshore wind.”