Offshore Wind Turbines Coming to California

Offshore wind (Tobias Schwarz / AFP / Getty)
Tobias Schwarz / AFP / Getty

Despite offshore wind farms around the world serving as Osterizers for seabirds and sonar jamming devices for marine mammals, an out-of-state company with no experience is proposing to install 100 floating turbines, each up to 636 feet tall, offshore from the Hearst Castle in California.

There are currently some 160 offshore wind farms either in operation, under construction or being planned. The majority have been installed in the U.K. and European North Sea. The U.S. has only a modest 30-megawatt, 5-turbine demonstration site called Block Island Wind Farm off of Rhode Island.

Conventional wind power is about 50 percent more expensive on a “Levelized Cost of Energy” that includes installation and operating costs of $109 per megawatt hour (MWh), compared to building and operating a natural gas power plan at just $74 per MWh.

Moreover, offshore wind power with a levelized cost of $196.90 per MWh is about 160 percent more expensive than natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency.

The biggest operations are the 27 offshore wind farms in the UK. Environmentalists last year declared “a new stage in Britain’s green energy investment boom” when five new offshore wind farms were approved.

But the National Audit Office, Competition and Markets Authority and Public Accounts Committee warned that ministers may have signed consumers up to a bad deal because the contracts were awarded last April without proper competition. The first three that are expected to start generating power in 2017 will be paid a levelized cost of energy equal to $225 per MWh. Total subsidies for the five wind farms is $18 billion.

In addition to spectacularly higher costs, the Journal of Aquatic Biosystems warns that there has been very little research on the environmental impacts of offshore wind farm construction and operations, despite substantial legal protections for seabirds, marine mammals and their habitats.

During the construction phase, offshore pile driving is known to cause traumatic hearing injury or death to whales, seals and sea lions. Changes in hearing sensitivity could make these mammals more vulnerable to predation, and make it more difficult to find food or to find mates.

During the operational phase, mortality can be caused by collision with the spinning turbine blades, and avoidance responses may result in displacement from key habitat and affect “birds migrating through the area as well as those that breed or forage in the vicinity,” according to the Journal of Aquatic Biosystems.

Researchers from the British universities of Leeds, Exeter and Glasgow recently found that the turbine blades operating at a minimum height of 75 feet above water kill large birds, like white gannets, that fly at roughly 90 feet above the water at rates that are 12 times higher than previous studies estimated, according to the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Cables transmitting the produced electricity also emit electromagnetic fields that can affect the movements and navigation of species that are sensitive to electro- or magnetic fields. Species most impacted are sharks, rays, perch, and decapod crustaceans, and sea turtles, according to studies by the University of Maryland.

California is the second-largest generator of wind power with 1,883 turbines producing about 8 percent of its electricity demand from wind turbines across the state. The Trident proposal directly follows Governor Jerry Brown signing a law last month requiring California utilities to provide 50 percent of their electricity from solar, wind and other renewable sources by 2030.

Given that the state only has about 20 percent renewable generation today, the law requires renewables to increase by 150 percent.

The Trident Winds filed early paperwork with Morro Bay city officials proposing a plan to install 100 floating turbines with a height of 636 feet tall. That compares to the British maximum height of about 430 feet, according to the Telegraph.

Trident claims the greater height will increase output and reduce subsidies by 10 to 15 percent. But those financial savings could come at the price of much more imposing landscape degradation and a dramatically increased seabird kill.


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