Newsom Eyes Floating Wind Farms Off California Coast

Environmental groups support the projects, as long as they're done responsibly for biodiversity.

Hywind floating offshore wind turbine, North Sea, Norway, 2000.
Hywind Scotland.

Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

California Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to expedite the construction of commercial wind energy farms along the Pacific Coast that will rely on cutting-edge floating wind turbines to produce green energy.

Newsom wants to focus on two areas: Morro Bay, in California’s central coast, which could potentially host 380 floating wind turbines, and the so-called Humboldt Call Area, which is further north. Together, these areas could produce around 4.6 gigawatts, enough clean energy to power 1.6 million homes.

“Developing offshore wind to produce clean, renewable energy could be a game-changer to achieving California’s clean energy goals and addressing climate change—all while bolstering the economy and creating new jobs,” Newsom said in late May.

California aims to produce all of its electricity through renewable energy resources by 2045, which would require the construction of 6 gigawatts of new renewable and storage resources annually—roughly five times more than what the state has been adding annually over the past decade.

Newsom’s clean energy goals are in alignment with those of the federal government. In a bid to slash carbon emissions from the energy sector to zero, the Biden administration aims to build offshore wind farms along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts that will be able to produce 30 gigawatts of green energy by 2030—enough to power 10 million homes. 

But unlike the eastern shelf, where federal authorities recently greenlighted a 2.8 billion wind farm, the western shelf is more steep, meaning that energy companies will have to use floating offshore wind technology.

Similar floating turbines have been used in Hywind Scotland, but on a much smaller scale since the Scottish windfarm has just five turbines producing enough electricity to power 36,000 homes.

Larger arrays of floating turbines have never been deployed but experts say that the technology can be scaled up and upgraded to successfully harness the strong winds that usually rip further offshore. Another advantage of floating turbines is that they won’t spoil coastal views because they can be installed far from the coastline.

Floating wind turbines are cutting edge and therefore expensive, but experts say that costs will likely go down as the technology becomes mainstream. France and Portugal also plan to build floating offshore wind farms. 

Furthermore, the Department of Energy has already invested $100 million in developing its own technology. Through a program called ATLANTIS, the DoE aims to design wind turbines that, unlike existing floating turbines, won’t need large platforms, which could decrease production costs.

Permitting and Opposition

Newsom allocated $20 million to fund the planning, environmental review, and port upgrades needed to get the projects started. Obtaining the necessary permits needed to start construction can take years, but Newsom wants to accelerate the process.

“We value process but not the paralysis of a process that takes years and years and years that can be done in a much more focused way,” Newsom said.

A Preliminary Environmental Assessment for a 399-square-mile area off Morro Bay that will pave the way for the environmental review is expected to conclude in October

The state of California foresees offering leases for both Morro Bay and Humboldt Call next year but the planned windfarms face strong opposition from local fishermen.

“Floating wind turbines have not been deployed in the scale being considered off the California coast. Far too many questions remain unanswered regarding potential impacts to marine life which is dependent on a healthy ecosystem” said Mike Conroy, the Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA).

The PCFFA argues that authorities have not asked fishermen “what areas work best for us” and demands a thorough analysis of the projects’ “cumulative effects.”

Environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Audubon said they support the projects.

“An in-state offshore wind industry would create thousands of well-paying clean energy jobs and speed the transition away from fossil fuels to reduce carbon emissions,” said the NRDC.

But the organization called for comprehensive environmental studies and mitigation measures to reduce the environmental impacts that floating offshore wind turbines may have on whales, dolphins, turtles, fish, and diving seabirds.