Supervisors Asked to Hire Offshore Wind Analyst

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 6, 2023

San Luis Obispo County administrators believes they need help to keep up with and participate in the review and permitting of offshore floating wind farms.

But County Supervisors want a more comprehensive look at energy-related projects being proposed in the area, as San Luis Obispo County is fast becoming the center of attention in the State’s clean energy future.

But the County staff thinks they need to bring someone in now, to take over monitoring this giant project, which is being reviewed and permitted through the federal government, and involves foreign limited liability corporations, formed specifically just for this project.

Interim County Administrative Officer, John Nilon asked Supervisors on Sept. 12 to approve adding a full time “Principal Administrative Analyst position with a focus on offshore wind to support the offshore wind activities, studies, and meetings,” reads Nilon’s report.

Nilon told Estero Bay News that after the Supervisors’ directions, he and the staff will go back and put together a more comprehensive update on the two main energy projects — the offshore floating wind farms and continued operations of Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant — sometime in the next few Supervisor meetings.

Supervisors wanted something “broader in scope,” Nilon said, “with what’s happening with energy in general.” 

He hopes that Supervisors will then move forward with creating the wind farm analyst position and let him hire someone to take over what promises to be a complicated review and approval process, especially since the position is already funded by State Sen. John Laird’s recent budgetary efforts.

Asked if he would include the trio of energy storage projects being proposed for the North Coast with two actually in the County’s jurisdiction, Nilon said he hadn’t thought to include those.

State to Pay for It

Funding for the new hire is already included in the State budget, specifically “Section 19.561(g)(58), which grants $750,000 for the County of San Luis Obispo for support of staffing resources for offshore wind development,” Nilon’s report said.

The money was appropriated after the County asked the State for money to help with its review of the floating offshore wind farms.

Local State Sen. John Laird, who has been a big supporter of the floating wind idea since the start, got this funding included in the State Budget, Nilon explained.

The County asked the State Legislature “to provide funding for staff time and resources dedicated to supporting the State in meeting its offshore wind [OSW] deployment goals. Since 2021, County involvement in offshore wind has been supported primarily from the Administrative Office and Public Works, with additional expertise provided by County Counsel and Planning and Building.” 

According to Laird’s website this money was given to the County “for staffing resources to fully support offshore wind development according to the state’s ambitious deployment goals.”

Sen. Laird also got money into the State Budget for scientific studies of the wildlife in the Wind Area. “Wildlife Baseline Assessment for Morro Bay Wind Energy,” Sen. Laird’s website reported, “$150,000 appropriated to the Center for Coastal Marine Sciences to conduct an initial baseline assessment of the biological/wildlife/ecosystem conditions in the Morro Bay Wind Energy Area to inform decision making on offshore wind development.”

A research boat, the Fulmer, brought scientists from the Center in LaJolla to Morro Bay recently to conduct underwater sound recordings to see what marine mammals — mainly whales and dolphins — are found the wind area. Another scientist onboard that boat was studying sea birds in the wind area.

(Also of note, Laird indicated that he’d also gotten into the State Budget, “$300,000 appropriated to the City of Morro Bay to repair 150-linear feet of failed corrugated metal pipe to enhance flood control in this storm-damaged region.”)

It’s a Federal Project

The permitting of these offshore floating wind farms is being done through the Federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management or BOEM, with participation by untold numbers of federal and state agencies, and if Supervisors approve, the County would grab a seat at the table too.

After years of discussion and negotiation amongst agencies and others, last December BOEM held an auction of over 372-square miles of open ocean, some 20-30 miles offshore from San Simeon (about 57 miles northwest of Morro Bay). 

Bids Are In

The so-called “Morro Bay Wind Area” was divided into three sections and a different company won each bid, and won leases.

Winning bidders were: Central California Offshore Wind, LLC, which bid $150.3 million for 80,418 acres of the wind area; Equinor Wind US, LLC ($130 million, 80,062 ac); and Invenergy California Offshore, LLC ($145.3M, 80,418 ac).

Two areas offshore from Humboldt County were also leased to: RWE Offshore Wind Holdings, LLC ($157.7M, 63,338 ac); and California North Floating, LLC ($173.8M, 69,031 ac).

All told, leases to the five West Coast wind areas totaled over $757.1 million. 

The wind companies are currently doing environmental reviews under the National Environmental Protection Act or NEPA, the federal version of California’s Environmental Quality Act, as they begin to design their projects.

A Mountain of Paperwork

So far there’s been a lot of paperwork generated over what amounts to a brand new industry — offshore “floating” wind turbines — and one that has not been attempted in any large scale anywhere else in the world.

According to Nilon’s report, the County’s people have taken part in:

• Participating in intergovernmental taskforces and serving on technical advisory committees related waterfront infrastructure; 

• Engaging with offshore wind developers and industry representatives; 

• Representing the community’s interests in the federal lease process; 

• Representing the community’s interests in state legislative and regulatory processes, including the AB 525 strategic planning process; 

• Representing the County at various offshore wind industry conferences and forums; 

• Coordinating with counterparts in other potential offshore wind host communities on common areas of common interest; and, 

• Collaborating with local, state, regional, and federal stakeholders on issues such as waterfront infrastructure siting opportunities, environmental and cultural concerns, community benefits, permitting, and economic development and workforce development opportunities. 

County Skin in the Game

The County has also kicked in some money to the matter. 

“The County has also contributed $100,000 from the SB 1090 Economic Development Designation for a regional waterfront infrastructure siting study,” the report said, “with County staff members serving on the technical advisory committee. The County has plans to further this work through a $1 million appropriation from the State’s Budget Act of 2022.”

It’s a Big Job

Whoever gets the wind analyst job will have a lot on their plate.

“The Principal Administrative Analyst — Offshore Wind,” Nilon’s report said, “is expected to support the offshore wind activities, with responsibility for serving as project manager for forthcoming studies, managing community engagement and investment efforts, and engaging with offshore wind stakeholders.”

Part of Bigger Plan

In a related matter, the report said the County hopes to expand its economic development work and the plan is to ask Supervisors to do this sometime in the coming months.

“County staff,” the report said, “intend to return to your board later this quarter with a related proposal to deepen economic development capacity and resourcing at the County by creating an Economic Development Division within the Administrative Office.”

If this bureaucratic plan is approved by Supervisors, it would in essence create a new division within County Admin with a department head — the Economic Development Manager — and the offshore wind analyst would report to that person, according to the report.

They also want to further expand economic development work with yet another analyst “dedicated to expanding broadband infrastructure and access, traditional economic development activities [business attraction, retention and expansion], and other identified economic development priority areas and grant management opportunities.”

The County anticipates getting additional State monies for the economic development work as well.

Analyst’s Pay

The offshore wind analyst when hired would receive a salary (at Step 1 on the salary scale) of some $74,000 for the remainder of the current fiscal year (2023/24); with $48,000 in benefits for a total pay package of $123,000 from hire date to the end of next June, when the current fiscal year ends.

Starting in 2024/25, the analyst’s salary (10 months at Step 2 and 2 months at Step 3) would be $117,000 a year plus $76,000 in benefits for a total of $193,000 total compensation.

And at the top end of the salary scale (Step 6 for 12 months), the salary would be $141,000 with $88,000 in benefits for a total compensation package of $229,000.

The report said they anticipate future grant monies will be available to continue funding the offshore wind analyst job, but if that dries up, the County Administration would absorb the position and make it part of their annual budget.

Staff to Keep Trying

County CAO Nilon said their intention when they return to Supervisors with this next report, is to continue to recommend creating the wind farm analyst job and filling it too, as there promises to be a continuing mountain of paperwork and bureaucratic hokey-pokey to dance through before the wind farms are fully permitted, built, installed and producing energy, if it ever happens at all.

Recently, news stories have indicated that the companies that won East Coast/Atlantic Ocean offshore wind farm leases in 2022 are finding their projected costs skyrocketing to the point they will likely be asking for government subsidies to cover the inflationary, spiraling costs.

East Coast offshore wind farms are being proposed for much shallower waters than here, and are expected to be sunk into the seafloor on piles.

Here the deepest areas of the Morro Bay Wind Area go down some 1,300 meters (over 4,100 feet deep) limiting the types of mooring systems that are available. 

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