Clean Energy in Oregon: Blowin' in the (offshore) wind
Editor's note: This is the second in an occasional series of articles about what Lake Oswego resident Bob Sack calls "underappreciated, carbon-free sources of energy that are under development right here in Oregon." Sack's first "snapshot," about geothermal energy, appeared in the Dec. 13 issue of The Review. Today's installment: offshore wind.
The story of wind farms off the Oregon coast blows hot and cold.
The Pacific shelf drops off sharply, so the offshore water is deep and wind turbines would require floating platforms tethered by cables. This is unlike the shallow water off the Atlantic coast, where installing wind turbines is easier because steel towers can be set directly into the sea bed.
Despite the challenges, in 2014 a company called Principle Power announced a plan to install five floating wind turbines off the coast of Coos Bay. It had received a $40 million matching grant from the Department of Energy, contingent on finding a utility to buy the power.
But both PGE and Pacific Power nixed the deal; they said the power would be about five times too expensive. They argued that this was a first-of-its-kind experimental project that should not be funded by ratepayers (although it would have raised electricity bills by only about 35 cents a month).
Gov. Kate Brown appointed an advisory committee to try to find a way to make a deal, but to no avail. So in September 2017, the company withdrew its application for the Oregon site after a deadline expired.
As a result, Principle Power moved just south of the Oregon border. In December 2017, they signed a memorandum of understanding for wind development off the coast of Eureka in Humboldt County (where the average wind speed is 22 mph) and the project now appears to be moving forward. A little further south, Seattle-based Trident Winds hopes to site a floating wind farm near the town of Morrow Bay in San Luis Obispo County. It would be six times more powerful than the Eureka project.
If offshore wind is so expensive, why are these companies pushing ahead? For one thing, offshore winds are steadier and stronger than on land; a turbine in a 15-mph wind can generate twice as much energy as a turbine in a 12-mph wind. Perhaps more importantly, the projected cost of offshore wind energy has been falling as the floating platform technology is proving to be practical.
The world's first commercial floating offshore wind farm in Scotland started sending electricity to the grid a year ago and is working very well. In the past, public subsidies have been necessary for both onshore and offshore wind farms if they were to compete with other sources of electricity. Now, costs have dropped for onshore wind and subsidies are not always required.
Are there potential problems? Yes. Wave action and very high winds can damage the turbines. Also, the U.S. Geological Survey has begun a four-year study of seabird and marine mammal populations off Central and Southern California because of concerns about the possible adverse effects. A previous study found no effect on fish life from buried transmission line cables.
But the U.S. Navy may have the last word. It conducts training and surveillance exercises over a vast area of the California coast and has put a red light (no-go) to wind farm developments off the Southern California coast. However, the Navy put a yellow light (further evaluation) up north, where the wind is stronger anyway.
If offshore wind farms are successful in California, it seems likely they will be back on the table in Oregon, especially for the southern Oregon coast.
According to an analysis by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a build-up of Oregon floating offshore wind facilities could support 32,000-59,000 job-years and add $3.2 billion-$5.5 billion to the regional GDP.
For more information, see "Something New May Be Rising Off California Coast: Wind Farms" (New York Times, Oct. 19, 2018).
Next: A future for hydropower?
Bob Sack is a member of the Lake Oswego Sustainability Advisory Board (appointed by the City Council) and is on the board of the Lake Oswego Sustainability Network, a citizens' group. The views expressed in these articles are his own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the organizations with whom he is associated.
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