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Monday, July 8, 2024 | Back issues
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Old lumber port preps for new life as California offshore wind hub

California aims to have as much as 25 gigawatts of energy from offshore wind by 2045, enough electricity to power about 19 million homes.

(CN) — Eureka's halcyon days as the "timber capital" of California are long gone, but the deepwater port city 270 miles north of San Francisco may see its fortunes turn as the hub of the state's first foray in offshore wind energy.

Located on Humboldt Bay at a particularly windy corner of the Northern California coast, Eureka sits across two of the five swaths of Pacific Ocean along the California coast that the federal government auctioned off to offshore wind developers this past December for a total of $757 million. The three other leases are on the Central Coast across from Morro Bay.

California is a late entry in the race to explore offshore wind as a source of renewable energy because until recently it wasn't feasible to deploy wind turbines on the steep ocean bottom off the Pacific Coast. On the Atlantic Coast, fixed-bottom wind turbines can sit on the more shallow seabed, but it's only with the large-scale, commercial development of so-called floating wind turbines in the last few years that the Pacific Ocean has become suitable for wind farms.

Humboldt Bay, the second-largest bay in California after the San Francisco Bay, is ideally suited to become the final assembly port for the massive turbines. The models expected to be used off the California coast should have more capacity and be larger than the ones currently in use in Europe, and including the blades, they can rise as high as 1,100 feet above the water — about the height of the Eiffel Tower.

The port at Eureka has a deep navigation channel, no bridges that would hinder towing the tall assemblies out to sea, and hundreds of acres of vacant industrial land along the shore that was once used by the timber industry, said Larry Oetker, the executive director of the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation, and Conservation District.

"This is where the future of offshore wind is going to be," Oetker said. "You can't just do this in any place. You couldn't do the final assembly in the San Francisco Bay."

The floating foundations for each turbine that will have to be assembled onshore alone are 100 feet tall, the height of a 10-story building, and 425 feet wide. Once assembled, the foundation will be moved from land on a floating barge that will then be sunk so the foundation can be towed to the location in the port where the tower for the turbine will be erected on top of it and the blades attached.

Plan of the offshore wind terminal in the Port of Humboldt Bay (Source: Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation, and Conservation District).

The various parts for the turbines will be mostly manufactured elsewhere in California and shipped to Humboldt Bay from ports down the coast. Given Humboldt Bay's proximity to Oregon, it's expected the port will serve as the staging area for future wind farms that are being considered for the Oregon coast.

To make this all happen, the port must first build a terminal where the final assembly can take place. With a $10 million state grant received two years ago, Humboldt Bay has mostly completed the preliminary studies and assessments for the project and is close to submitting its environmental impact report and applying for the needed regulatory permits, according to Oetker. The port is working on a final agreement with Crowley, a logistics and shipping company, to jointly develop and operate the new terminal.

The offshore wind terminal will transform the region, which has been hit hard by the rapid decline of the timber industry in the past decades. Humboldt Bay was for more than a hundred years primarily a timber port where sawmills cut the redwoods and other trees logged in the area to be loaded on barges for transport elsewhere. The 2008 financial crisis drove the final nail in the coffin of the few remaining lumber businesses, leaving the port's industrial land mostly vacant.

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"Offshore wind will be a complete revitalization of the port," Oetker said. "We're focusing on an industry that we think is going to position it for the 21st century — we're building a new port facility from scratch that's going to be here for the next 50 to a 100 years."

Lumber is getting loaded on a ship in the Port of Humboldt Bay (Source: California Association of Port Authorities)

Realistically, construction will start in 2025 and will take two or three years, Oetker said. The project will require an investment of several hundred millions of dollars in federal, state and private sector funding, and is expected to create as many as 3,000 jobs during its construction phase.

Humboldt Bay, however, isn't the only California port that has shown interest in becoming the staging hub for the offshore wind industry. This week, the Port of Long Beach announced a proposal to build a 400-acre floating offshore wind facility in its outer harbor.

“Imagine fully assembled wind turbines capable of generating 20 megawatts of energy towed by sea from the Port of Long Beach to offshore wind farms in Central and Northern California,” Mario Cordero, the port's executive director said. “No other location has the space to achieve the economies of scale needed to drive down the cost of energy for these huge turbines."

A January report by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management found that aside from Humboldt Bay, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach would be good candidates for the staging and integration sites where the foundations and the turbines will be assembled, given that all three ports have large amounts of available land, deep navigation channels and no draft restrictions to tow the assembled turbines out to sea.

The report also noted that given California's ambitious offshore wind goals, at least three staging and integration sites will be necessary to assemble the needed turbines. The bureau expects to release an additional report in late June that will rank the California ports, based on the feasibility and costs of the needed infrastructure upgrades to support the offshore wind industry, including assembly, manufacturing, and maintenance.

This past August, California set a target of adding 5 gigawatts of offshore wind energy to its renewable energy portfolio by 2030, as it phases out carbon-based power, and 25 gigawatts by 2045, enough electricity to power 25 million homes. The planned offshore wind farms in Northern and Central California will have a potential capacity of 4.6 gigawatts.

The state is home to some of the best offshore wind resources in the country, according to the California Energy Commission, and offshore wind is a critical clean energy source at night complementing solar energy by providing generation at the end of the day and into the evening as the sun sets. 

"Offshore is expected to be a core component of California’s long-term energy profile as we move away from fossil fuels," CEC spokesman Michael Ward said. "While there are some uncertainties as to how this capacity will be developed through 2045, we know it can be done."

It's only in recent years that large-scale deployment of floating wind turbines, which are held in place by cables anchored to the seafloor rather than by fixed foundations sitting on the seabed, has become economically feasible. The first wind farm using this technology was built off the coast of Scotland and started operating in 2017. A second floating wind off Scotland was completed in 2021, and there's also one off the Portuguese coast that went online in 2020.

Among the advantages of floating wind turbines is that they can sit further out in the ocean, where they are less likely to ruin the view from the shore and where the wind is typically stronger than closer to land.

Cumulative floating offshore wind capacity by country based on announced commercial operation dates through 2027 (Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 2022 Offshore Wind Market Report)

"The biggest barrier to deployment of offshore wind energy in California is to get the industry up and running as opposed to technological challenges," said Michelle Solomon, a senior policy analyst with Energy Innovation Policy & Technology, a non-partisan energy and climate policy think tank. "That includes everything from port infrastructure to transmission line infrastructure, to bring the power onshore as well as to transmit it throughout the state."

Humboldt Bay has among the best wind speeds along the California coast, which makes it an ideal location for the wind farms, but it is nowhere near the main concentrations of electricity users in the state. So, both to bring the power from the turbines on shore and to distribute it will require an substantial infrastructure investment.

The U.S. is already lagging behind other nations in more established fixed-bottom offshore wind technology, with 55-gigawatt in capacity already being deployed globally, specifically in countries such as China, Germany, and the United Kingdom, according to Energy Innovation. As of last year, the U.S. had only two offshore wind farms, a 30-megawatt one in Rhode Island and a 12-megawatt one in Virginia.

Given the experience European developers already have with offshore wind, it may not be surprising that the federal auction of the leases off the California coast attracted interest from those developers, with affiliates of a German and a Danish company snapping up the two leases near Humboldt Bay.

But whether a U.S. or an European company will lead a project doesn't in itself present an issue, Solomon said.

"The bigger priority for the federal and state governments is to keep the supply chain and the workforce local," she said, citing the credits developers received in the bidding process for their commitments to local workforce development. "One of the advantages of offshore wind is that, since the turbines are so big, a lot of the work has to be done near the site of the project."

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Categories / Energy, Environment, Regional

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