Bottom-fixed offshore wind is taking off on the east coast of the US, but on the west coast, where water depths are greater, California has a unique opportunity to develop a new industry – floating offshore wind, as Business Network for Offshore Wind executive vice president Ross Tyler explains
California is known for its sun, wine, busy freeways and technology. Less known is that California is the world’s fifth-largest economy and by 2045 all of its electricity must come from clean sources. The days of natural gas for heating will be long gone and every electron passing along its grid will be from a non-carbon-emitting source. Furthermore, California’s transportation sector is expected to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels which means that, despite gains in efficiency, more electricity will be needed in the future.
What is driving the Californian power transition? The state has been actively pursuing ways to reduce its CO2 emissions for decades. However, it was the passage in 2018 of Senate Bill (SB) 100 that set the admirable goals of making the state powered with 50% renewable energy by 2025; 60% by 2030; and 100% by 2045, which will have the greatest impact in reducing California’s greenhouse gases.
The first goal of SB 100 is for a plan or road map outlining how to achieve California’s future levels of clean energy. That plan is to be delivered to state legislators on or before 1 January 2021.
“With the plan due in less than two years, the pressing question is, will California be ‘all-in’ for developing a floating offshore wind market and the associated major manufacturing industry?”
But that deadline provides an opportunity for offshore wind – floating offshore wind – that can be deployed in deep water along California’s coast.
With the plan due in less than two years, the pressing question is, will California be ‘all-in’ for developing a floating offshore wind market and the associated major manufacturing industry, or simply adopt a ‘light-touch’ with one or two offshore windfarms and retain its dependency on the existing technologies?
A decision needs to be made now and spelt out to California’s new administration so that it can follow through with full momentum. Floating offshore wind technology is being developed and tested around the globe – ironically, with very little in the US – but California, with its potential scale, could lead the world’s floating offshore wind technology market. However, the state cannot afford false starts with changing political winds and deciding the future of offshore wind in this early stage of the state’s new administration provides it with great potential for success.
A first step in advancing offshore wind as a potential major source for California’s future clean electricity is to gain acceptance by other ocean users. Groups such as the US Navy, commercial shipping, fisheries and environmental groups need to understand that offshore wind parks are not a threat and will become good neighbours. Also, Californians need to understand floating offshore wind in order to be comfortable with it offshore.
The next step is to clearly identify the benefits as well as the challenges offshore wind will bring to the state. This requires better understanding of the details. For example, in addition to matching evolving floating technological designs to the west coast’s wind speeds, there is a need to design mooring systems with anchors that are optimal for the 500-1,000 m water depth. Another element to contemplate is offshore windfarm operations and maintenance procedures that will need to be efficient and safe for the technicians in the high-wave environment.
On the land side, suitable locations in ports with good access to the ocean need to be located and scoped-out for upgrades to accommodate fabrication and serial production of the floating platforms. Assembly processes will need to be streamlined so the platforms may rapidly and cost effectively be completed with towers, turbines and blades before being towed immediately to their assigned co-ordinates in the ocean.
The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) has identified potential offshore wind areas off California’s coast which have the potential to generate in excess of 18 GW of power. Independently, a report being commissioned by one of the members of the Business Network for Offshore Wind indicates that by 2050, the state could well use approximately 20 GW of offshore wind, which would amount to 20% of the state’s electricity mix.
Projected growth of this scale suggests the state may need about 2,000 turbines (assuming the use of a 10 MW turbine). If a modern turbine facility were to produce 150 turbines a year California alone would secure about 13 years of local demand which would help de-risk investment in OEM facilities. This would be positive news for California, creating an offshore wind industry and well-paid jobs, with the likely support of unions, whose members stand to gain steady work in this major new industry for decades.
Consistent offshore winds can complement solar energy plus storage to replace gas ‘peaker’ plants in the Golden state
California’s potential for introducing offshore wind as a new industry can overflow to other valuable markets such as the IT sector. Maintaining a turbine and the associated mooring and anchoring system throughout an offshore windfarm will require sophisticated digitalisation for data monitoring and decision-making to optimise performance and economic potential of offshore windfarms.
It has been understood for many years that the wind resources off California’s northern coast are very favorable for offshore wind, but the electricity loads are in the central and southern parts of the state. As the state looks more widely at grid reliability, perhaps the solution lies in a subsea transmission cable running north to south, strengthening weak parts of the grid.
Such a solution could have immense advantages for the coming era of climate extremes. With a major part of California’s electricity transported by cables on the seabed and coming ashore close to population centres, vulnerability to the kinds of devastating damage from fires originating in the electrical grid will be significantly reduced. Groups have already started investigating an offshore transmission backbone; perhaps the findings will become part of this summer’s CPUC’s next Integrated Resource Planning exercise.
Unlike most of California’s onshore windfarms, which peak at night, offshore winds remain strong throughout the day and night, year-round. The state’s consistent offshore winds can be an excellent complement to today’s trend of relying on solar energy plus storage to replace gas ‘peaker’ plants. A set of utility-scale floating offshore windfarms of around 1,500 MW, located within the California offshore wind resource area, could replace about 7% of carbon-emitting electricity generation.
Offshore wind-generated electricity needs to be accepted as part of California’s future electrical baseload equivalent. It can be a major contributor to California’s energy transition, creating a vast new industry, contributing to energy resilience and diversity, and helping to rapidly reduce its greenhouse emissions. California has much to gain from an ‘all-in’ commitment which will boost floating offshore wind to levels that the state will once again resume its role as a national and global clean energy technology leader.
California’s ‘all-in’ approach with scale for offshore wind needs to be a significant inclusion in the scoping document prepared by the California Public Utilities Commission, California Energy Commission and the California Air Regulations Board and delivered to the legislators as stipulated by SB 100.
The world is watching you California, and now is the time to take the first, important steps in the direction of building floating windfarms that will provide the state with clean energy in abundance.