Blowin’ in the Offshore Wind

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

October 24, 2023

Offshore wind energy is top of mind for many politicians and other true believers in the fight against climate change, and a pair of upcoming public events will dissect and discuss the issue — from accused devastation of marine mammals, to the benefits this new direction for society will have.

Documentary Film

A public viewing of a documentary film about offshore wind energy and its ties to marine mammal deaths on the East Coast is planned for 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 22 at the Morro Bay Community Center, 1001 Kennedy Way, Morro Bay.

Called, “Thrown to the Wind,” and released in August by Poducer and Director, Jonah Markowitz, the film delves into the Federal Government’s claims that increases in die-offs of whales, dolphins and other marine mammals on the U.S. East Coast since 2016 is not related to construction of large offshore wind turbines.

“The film presents evidence that proves that the U.S. Government officials have been lying,” said journalist Michael Shellenberger in a New York Post article. Shellenberger reveals that he was involved in the production of the film.

Shellenberger said the main species of concern is the North Atlantic Wright Whale, which has seen a precipitous population drop since 2022 — from over 400 to about 360. 

“There have been more than 60 recorded whale deaths of all species on the East Coast since Dec 1, 2022,” Shellenberger said, “a number that increased markedly since 2016 when the wind industry started to ramp up.”

According to an event flyer, “This documentary, based on new research, challenges that [government] narrative.” 

Organizers are asking for a $5 donation at the door to cover the cost of renting the hall. A panel discussion will follow the screening.

Government Meeting

Then on Nov. 1 in the County Supervisors’ Chambers at the County Government Center, corner of Higuera and Santa Rosa Sts., in San Luis Obispo, local government pols will hold a public meeting on offshore wind, coming from the opposite side as the documentary film.

State Assemblywoman Dawn Addis and local Congressman Salud Carbajal are organizing the event in conjunction with County, State and Federal agency reps, and State Sen. John Laird. The meeting is slated to start at 4 p.m. and there will also be a streaming of the meeting, with details to be announced later. 

Others reportedly to attend include: reps from the California Energy Commission and Coastal Commission, Cal Poly, and County Supervisors Bruce Gibson, and Dawn Ortiz-Legg. From the other side of the aisle, Morro Bay Mayor Carla Wixom was reported to be scheduled to attend.

Pols Are All Aboard

The politicians putting on the meeting all said they wanted to hear from residents, but they talk like this is a foregone conclusion.

“We need families to understand,” Rep. Carbajal said, “not just the clean power that this development will bring in our fight against the climate crisis, but also the power that it will have in terms of creating jobs, boosting our local communities, and making our region an economic powerhouse. I hope all who are interested can join us.”

Sen. Laird thinks this is a big deal. “Offshore wind is coming to the Central Coast,” Sen Laird said, “and this is a really big deal. It’s a profound step towards a green energy future for the state and will serve as a model for the globe.”

He said resiidents here have a lot of questions. “Understandably, however,” Sen. Laird said, “the residents of San Luis Obispo County have a lot of questions, including whether the turbines really will spin by 2030 and what kind of benefits — and impacts — this new technology may bring. The purpose of this information session is to begin to get those questions answered, and I encourage the community to join us on Nov. 1.”

Assemblywoman Addis, who is from Morro Bay, said, “As California continues to make historic investment in climate solutions, there is tremendous potential for offshore wind energy to play a critical role. That said, building offshore wind energy off the Central Coast will impact our communities and there is much to learn.”

“As offshore wind energy development moves forward, it’s important that we come together to better understand the challenges ahead, the potential environmental and economic benefits to California and the Central Coast, and to hear local voices.”

Dist. 2 SLO County Supervisor, Bruce Gibson too seems all in. “Offshore wind,” Sup. Gibson said, “has such great potential to accelerate our shift to renewable energy and the issues around it are important for the public to understand. I appreciate Rep. Carbajal, Sen. Laird and Asm. Addis hosting what will certainly be a fascinating and informative event.”

Dist. 3 Supervisor Dawn Ortiz-Legg, who represents Pismo and Avila Beach, said, “This will be an important opportunity for our community to learn and engage with this robust panel of agencies and companies working on offshore wind.

“There are multiple steps required to generate clean, reliable energy in a responsible manner and it’s important for our community to be informed and provide feedback so SLO County to continue our tradition as an energy generating powerhouse.”

Of note, all five of these elected officials are Democrats, though Gibson and Ortiz-Legg technically hold non-partisan offices. If she indeed appears at the meeting, Morro Bay Mayor Wixom is likely to be the sole voice of opposition, though she has not officially stated support or opposition to the wind farms.

Central Coast in Bulls-Eye

The Central Coast is in the bulls-eye for the germinating offshore wind energy industry, as a nearly 400-square mile patch of open ocean, 20-30 miles off San Simeon, has already been leased out by the Federal Government to three different companies to develop. Two other companies won leases off the Humboldt Coast in Northern California.

The companies are: Equinor, a company from Norway; Energize Ventures, which was formerly named Invenergy, is based in Chicago; and Golden State Energy, a Spain-based company formerly known as Central California Offshore Wind. 

Of note, according to the Schiafone report, Golden State Wind “is a partnership between Ocean Winds and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board.”

The initial goal is for 3-gigawatts capacity of floating wind turbines to be installed in the “Morro Bay Wind Area” and the power brought ashore most likely in Morro Bay at the shuttered power plant. But that should be considered conceptual at this point, as the details — from environmental impacts and mitigation, to design and construction are still being developed.

Morro Bay to Play Key Role

Though the actual siting of the wind farms would be about 57-miles northwest of Morro Bay, the city, especially the harbor, will likely be called upon to house facilities needed to support the endeavor — from office/control room space to crew ship moorings.

Already the Federal Government has allocated over $1 million to the Harbor Department to help pay for upgrades to the North T-pier to accommodate what will be relatively large ships for this tiny harbor.

According to studies that have been done, most recently by the State Lands Commission, Morro Bay Harbor can’t handle the ultra-large work ships needed to assemble and install the mooring systems and wind towers, and tow them to the wind farm site.

So far, Long Beach and Port Hueneme have been the two most oft mentioned locations for the large work assembly/manufacturing yard, large work quay, and deep-water port needed for this aspect of the project.

City Meets Wind Companies

The City has met a few times with the companies’ reps to discuss what improvements might be needed to local harbor facilities.

In a recent joint-city council-planning commission meeting, Harbor Director Ted Schiafone said they’d held an “orientation” meeting with the three companies — Equinor, Energize Ventures and Golden State Wind — in June 2023. 

They also took Equinor’s project team on a harbor and water tour in August. (Equinor is also developing offshore wind farms on the U.S. East Coast).

City’s Potential Windfall

Morro Bay’s likely sources of revenue from these massive wind farms will come from mooring fees and lease payments, if the companies have to lease the power plant’s outfall canal, where the power cables are expected to come ashore.

How much money that would bring in to the City and more importantly the Harbor Department is subject to negotiation. 

When Duke Energy tried to replace the power plant with a new, more efficient and smaller one, the City and Duke worked out a lease agreement that committed Duke to pay a minimum of $2 million a year, with at least $250,000 of that going to the Harbor Fund (adjusted for inflation). In really hot summers and high energy demand years, the payments would have been more than $2 million.

The expected life of that plant was 50 years, so the outfall lease meant a total of $100 million was all but guaranteed, but was lost when the project fell apart. Duke sold the plant and it was shuttered forever in 2014, ending the outfall lease and the money dried up.

With the old power plant (and the unrealized new one), the City collected property taxes, the outfall lease payments, and a franchise fees on the natural gas burned at the plant (which Duke had to purchase from PG&E). 

It meant an instant windfall of over $4 million the first two years Duke had the plant (skewed upward by the State’s energy crisis of 2000-2002).

Future Schedule

According to the Schiafone report, the schedule going forward includes:

• 2023: Pre-survey meetings and planning stage. Lessees will submit their Public Engagement Plan.

• 2024-2028: Lessees will submit their site assessment plan, which will be reviewed and approved by BOEM [Bureau of Ocean Energy Management]. Site assessment and field surveys on commercial fishing impacts will then be conducted. At the end of this period, the Construction and Operations Plan (COP) will be submitted with an optional project design envelope.

• 2028-2029: BOEM will decide whether the COP is complete and sufficient, and NEPA/environmental and technical reviews will begin. These reviews will concurrently ensure Coastal Zone Management Act consistency.

• 2030: BOEM will approve the COP, if it meets requirements. Design and installation reports will then be submitted. If approved, installation of the wind turbines may begin.

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