Tom Wheeler, EPIC Executive Director
Offshore wind is necessary to combat the climate crisis. With gigawatts of potential energy off of Humboldt’s coast as well as one of the first two lease areas proposed on the West Coast, Humboldt is leading the nation. As a leader, it is important that we set a strong example and that we can learn from this project to better develop offshore wind development that both maximizes the potential energy created while ensuring that whatever impacts occur are avoided, minimized and mitigated appropriately.
EPIC and our friends at Humboldt Baykeeper, the Northcoast Environmental Center, and the Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities recently submitted comments to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) on the proposed sale notice for the Humboldt Wind Area. This is one of the first opportunities to shape how wind energy is to be developed off our coast. The public comments focused both on standard conditions that BOEM would require across all proposed leases to benefit wildlife and to encourage energy storage and grid improvements.
Wildlife Impacts Uncertain, So Plan for Uncertainty
The marine environment 20-25 miles offshore is relatively poorly studied. While we have some information about what kinds of wildlife use the area, there are still holes in our understanding of what species might be impacted. Even for the species we know exist in this environment, it is unclear how they might interact with floating offshore wind turbines because—excuse the pun—we are in uncharted waters. Only a handful of other floating offshore wind turbines exist and none on the West Coast. What do we do with uncertainty? One approach, adopted by our groups, is rigorous data collection that feeds into project modifications.
Given our dearth of data, we need to develop more. This includes both baseline monitoring of what wildlife utilize this area before the turbines are placed, as well as robust monitoring of wildlife during project operations. New technology can enable a much more robust understanding of the project area. Image recognition technology, for example, can replace human monitors and scan for wildlife in the project area and automatically feed open and transparent data portals.
The data that is collected then needs to be put to a productive end. At the project outset, we should ensure that all feasible avoidance and mitigation measures are employed, from better site selection of individual turbines to the incorporation of technology to minimize risks. As the turbines operate and if new issues emerge—again, the benefit of robust and transparent data is the ability to scan for emerging issues—a science-based “adaptive management” program can ensure that modifications to the projects occur. If, say, bats are being impacted in a way that wasn’t initially anticipated, a panel of bat and wind energy experts could determine the best way to avoid impacts in the future.
There is no way to meet our clean energy needs without impacts. With a robust and objective program like we advocated for, we can best avoid, minimize and mitigate impacts to ensure that while taking action to stop the climate crisis we don’t also contribute to the related biodiversity crisis.
Incentivize Energy Storage and Grid Improvements
Initial buildout of wind energy in our region is limited by the export capacity of our electrical grid. While the wind areas are capable of producing 1.6 gigawatts of power, the Schatz Energy Research Laboratory at CalPoly Humboldt anticipates we can only build about a tenth of that capacity, 174 megawatts, until grid improvements occur. Even then, there may be times when turbines need to be turned off because our grid can’t handle all the power that could be produced. Energy storage can reduce curtailment from offshore wind projects by sopping up “excess” power and storing it for later use.
One potential form of energy storage that is desired by the local community is “green hydrogen” production. Humboldt County’s hydrogen needs are currently met through hydrogen that is trucked into the county from around Sacramento. With projected increased hydrogen fuel needs, to meet demand by the Humboldt Transit Authority among other users, locally-produced hydrogen would be a substantial benefit to the project. In addition to fueling buses and other forms of transportation, hydrogen can also be blended into the fuel utilized at the Humboldt Bay Generating Station, reducing the greenhouse gas emissions from this power generation.