Renewable Energy in Humboldt: What Next?

By Caroline Griffith

On August 9 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a harrowing report about the progression of human-caused climate change. According to the 195-member international expert panel, unless there are immediate large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, it is unlikely we will be able to limit warming to 1.5°C or even 2°C. The report states, “Many of the changes observed in the climate are unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, and some of the changes already set in motion—such as continued sea level rise—are irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years.”

Though the assessment is dire, for example stating that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 2019 was at its highest concentrations in the last 2 million years, the report goes on to state that human actions still have the potential to determine the extent of climate change. If we act now and act dramatically to decrease the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that we are producing, we can reduce the extent of the impacts of climate change. 

Here on the North Coast there is an ongoing debate about the best way to do that. In Humboldt County, 54% of our GHG emissions come from transportation, 13% come from livestock, 13% come from stationary combustion, primarily natural gas, and 11% come from electricity consumption. Following the failure of the TerraGen onshore wind project, many within the environmental community have been debating how we can address the 24% of emissions that come from heating and powering our homes and businesses. Topics of contention include the merits of offshore wind versus solar panels on every building, and whether or not biomass should be included in any renewable energy portfolio. So what are the options in terms of lowering our emissions locally?

According to the Schatz Energy Research Center, “The wind resource beyond Humboldt Bay is among the best in the nation, with wind speeds often exceeding 10 meters per second at 90 meters above the ocean’s surface — and even faster at heights around 120 meters, where turbines would likely be centered.” Humboldt County has been making moves over the last few years in the direction of offshore wind development, including plans to upgrade our port structures to accommodate and potentially construct massive floating wind turbines for deployment off the coast of Humboldt. On a recent EcoNews Report, Matthew Marshall, the Executive Director of the Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA) said that the agency started reaching out to offshore developers in 2018 in an effort to build relationships with community-minded developers who would be interested in developing a project that would be partially-owned by RCEA. The resulting consortium has already begun engaging in the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) leasing process.

In a boon to the prospects of offshore wind, the Biden Administration on March 29, 2021 committed to creating 30 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind in the United States by 2030. A gigawatt is a billion watts. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, a gigawatt is equivalent to what would be produced by 412 Utility-Scale Wind Turbines, which gives an idea of how many turbines they are proposing to bring online in the next nine years. In July, BOEM released a memorandum in support of designating a Wind Energy Area off the coast of Humboldt County. The Humboldt Call Area, as this zone is called, begins 21 miles offshore of Eureka and is approximately 206 square miles. The first stage in the development process is an environmental review of the proposed lease area, after which BOEM would consider lease options. Any potential lessee would need to undergo environmental review of the specific proposed project. Public comments on the proposed Call Area are due September 13. 

According to Amin Younes, a fellow at the Schatz Energy Research Center, in a recent presentation hosted by 350 Humboldt and co-hosted by the NEC, in order to reduce Humboldt County’s emissions by 66% (a figure that is far below what the IPCC recommends) we would need to produce 144 megawatts (MW) of wind energy, equivalent to twelve 12 MW turbines. Because offshore wind turbines are much larger than their onshore counterparts, offshore projects require fewer turbines to create a comparable amount of energy. For example, the TerraGen project proposed using 60 turbines. An offshore project could produce the same amount of energy with only 10 turbines. However, any wind project in Humboldt that was designed with an eye towards powering more than just the local area would require upgrading the transmission lines connecting us to the grid, a project which would potentially cost billions of dollars. 

Because of deep ocean waters off the North Coast, local offshore wind would need to use floating platforms. Pictured is a floating platform prototype. Photo source: Wikimedia commons, Agucadoura Wind Float Prototype

The likelihood of a Humboldt offshore wind project is high, given our wind and port resources, and was highlighted by a recent visit by Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland. According to the BOEM memo, of the fourteen companies that responded to a call for Nominations of Interest, ten expressed interest in the Humboldt Call Area. RCEA’s consortium was one of those.

Another option that is often discussed is distributed roof-top solar built on existing structures. This option is touted as an alternative to large projects, which have a much bigger footprint. According to Younes, utility-scale solar projects capable of meeting our energy needs would require between 1900 and 3100 acres of land, which could diminish our stock of agricultural lands. Distributed solar, on the other hand, could hypothetically meet our needs, but would require roughly 90% of Humboldt County’s available roof space and necessitate that all of those roofs be angled in the same direction. And either of these options would require a huge investment in battery storage, since we all know that the sun doesn’t always shine on Humboldt County. Another hurdle for the roof-top solar scenario is cost; not every homeowner has the funds to pay for solar panels, and in 2019, 45% of households in Humboldt County were renters. However, if government agencies were serious about reducing our emissions, they could provide low-interest financing for distributed solar.

Regardless of which direction we move to reduce our emissions (and most likely we will need to pursue a combination of these options coupled with a dramatic reassessment of our energy consumption), recent history has shown that there needs to be community buy-in for any large-scale project to be successful. After the failure of the TerraGen project, Younes interviewed locals to find out why. Many of them had concerns about the transparency of the process and who would be benefiting from it, which highlights the need for an open, sustained, democratic discourse about any future projects. We have a responsibility to quickly transition to a zero-carbon electricity system to help the world avoid the worst outcomes of the climate crisis. Living in a highly desirable area for offshore wind, we also have an opportunity to set the standard for future projects, as well as to make sure that local projects fit our needs and are accountable to the people. It’s time to start that conversation.