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Floating offshore wind could arrive in California this decade

A wind turbine with an innovative WindFloat floating foundation being towed to the project site off northern Portugal. Turbines with such innovative foundations could soon be installed off California
A wind turbine with an innovative WindFloat floating foundation being towed to the project site off northern Portugal. Turbines with such innovative foundations could soon be installed off California

Offshore wind with innovative floating foundations may be arriving in California, the cradle of the global modern wind industry back in the 1970s.

A bill was recently introduced in the state legislature to jump-start offshore wind projects off the central coast of the state, the second-most populous in the US. Introduced by Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, it would require 10 GW of offshore wind power by 2040.

Backing for another new offshore wind bill recently introduced in California is meanwhile increasing apace. A coalition of trade unions, industry and environmental groups has now endorsed a second offshore wind bill – in this case, to require 3 GW of offshore wind off all of California’s coastline by 2030, and also 10 GW by 2040 including off northern California.

Assemblyman David Chiu of San Francisco, the proposer, said the ensuing projects would create 14,000 construction jobs and help prevent electricity blackouts in the fast-growing and wildfire-beset state. Chiu’s bill would require the California Energy Commission to draw up a plan by June 2022 layout out how to reach the target.

The bills are important because of California's long-standing role as an environmental pioneer in the US, and because it is the most populous state and has the equivalent of the world's fifth-largest economy. The floating wind foundation technology that would be needed is also only just being commercialised.

Because of California’s deep Pacific Ocean waters, all wind projects off the coast would need floating rather than fixed-bottom foundations, which are barely commercialised, though that would mean that wind projects could be sited further off the shore, easing the issue of wealthy coastal landowners worried about their views.

A leading contender for such offshore floating technology is Principle Power’s innovative WindFloat semi-submersible foundation. Principle is co-owner and developer of the WindFloat Atlantic project, consisting of three MHI Vestas 8.4-MW turbines atop WindFloat foundations. The pilot project, the first of its kind, was commissioned off Viana do Castelo, Portugal in 2020. The largest floating wind farm in the world, 50 MW Kincardine project also featuring WindFloat foundations, will be commissioned this spring off Aberdeen, Scotland.  

The far north of California, between San Francisco and the Oregon border, has high offshore wind potential, as does the Central Coast. The 10-GW goal of both bills would be almost equal to the generating capacity of all the large solar farms currently installed in California and nearly double all the onshore wind farms now operating in the state.

The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is expected to begin leasing the wind development areas off California as soon as 2021, or early 2022.

Aegir Insights of Denmark forecasts that a significant amount of floating offshore wind could be installed in the US, primarily off California and Hawaii. As much as 6-11 GW by 2035 could be built in the Pacific off California, Oregon just to the north and the Hawaiian archipelago, as well as off Michigan (the Great Lakes), New York and Maine, says Aegir.

However, California has struggled with a lack of political leadership on offshore wind and other renewable energies for the last few years. The four-year administration of ex-president Donald Trump lagged, for example, in mediating tension in California between would-be offshore wind developers and the powerful US Navy, which said the wind projects would interfere with access to its naval bases and its training.

The new president, Joe Biden, in contrast has called for doubling US offshore wind by 2030. It is unclear if he means installed capacity, which is only currently 42 MW – off the East Coast – or leased offshore wind development areas, which would imply a far greater amount.