Another California First: Floating Wind System Proposed Off Morro Bay

Another California First: Floating Wind System Proposed Off Morro Bay

In January, officials at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) received an unsolicited proposal for a major project. The plan — to build 100 floating wind turbines in the Pacific Ocean, 35 miles off the coast of Morro Bay, and send 650 MW of power via undersea cable to an existing utility connection at Morro Bay, about half-way between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The estimated cost of the project was $3.2 billion.

The proposal came from Trident Winds (TW) LLC, a Seattle-based company founded in 2015 with a focus on deepwater offshore wind project development. TW leads a consortium that includes private sector energy and engineering companies as well as public sector partners, including two major U.S. national labs — National Renewable Energy Lab and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Alla Weinstein, TW founder, received Renewable Energy World’s “Excellence in Renewable Energy Award for Innovation in Technology” in 2012. Weinstein was CEO with Principle Power, a previous company she founded. The award was for her development of a floating semi-submersible support structure, first used off the coast of Portugal.

TW’s commercial operation could start around 2025. Timing is important for California. The state’s new Clean Energy and Pollution Reduction Act of 2015 — SB 350 — sets mandates for renewable electric supplies, starting at 25 percent in 2016 and increasing to 50 percent by 2030. California needs projects like Trident Winds.

For a number of reasons — policy, technology, economics — this is an important project to watch.

Economics I

It’s noteworthy that this project came to BOEM unsolicited. TW sees a chance to make money and to take advantage of big changes in California’s energy markets. When private investors are willing to risk private capital on a high-risk project, it sends strong signals to markets and regulators.

In an interview Weinstein said that “the market and project technology will be matured and ready by 2018, 2019.” Weinstein expects that “demand for renewables will only increase.” She noted, for example, that today’s focus is largely on existing demand. Discussions about transportation electrification move the demand topic to a far different plane.

Economics II — Competition

When BOEM receives an unsolicited bid, the Agency publicizes that bid to gauge interest from other companies. Indeed, Statoil, the Norwegian energy giant, responded to BOEM’s Request-for-Interest published in August (details aren’t yet available from BOEM regarding Statoil’s proposal).

Again, this positive reply is important. When experts from two separate analytical teams judge a high-risk project to be economically and technically viable, those conclusions reinforce each other. Furthermore, it can start competitive bidding — important for taxpayers, because of royalties and state and federal taxes. And competition is critical for getting the best retail price for ratepayers who will pay for such expensive projects.

Technology — the Floats

The significant technological development within TW’s proposal is the confidence in the floating support structures required for each turbine. (Recall Weinstein’s Innovation award.) The Pacific is too deep to affix superstructures to the ocean floor, as is done in the shallower Atlantic. TW’s turbines will be in water 800-1,000 meters deep. The turbines are attached to a float which is then anchored to the ocean floor. (Statoil has developed its own float.)

Weinstein commented that “without (a) technical solution for the installation of offshore wind turbines in deep water, no harvesting of offshore wind was even possible to conceive.”

Float prototypes are working well in demonstration projects in Scotland, Norway and Portugal. But commercial production hasn’t started. Now comes California with almost unlimited demands for renewable power. It’s that demand that could push float production to commercial scale. Hence Weinstein’s comment that this technology will be ready by around 2020. New production takes time. After all, this starts a whole new industry.

The Bottom Line — Energy

TW’s project is planned with a net capacity of 650 MW, with possible expansion to 1,000 MW. Energy would go to an offshore, floating substation; then, to shore via one or more cables and connect to a substation owned by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E).

Trident Winds’ success would open-up an almost endless supply of wind energy. Again, California will need it. Recall the state’s renewable generation mandates. In its proposal to BOEM, TW wrote that “over 15,000 MW of additional renewable capacity would be needed to meet the SB-350 requirements by 2030.”

Next Steps

BOEM’s process is a deliberate and a deliberative one, including four broad analytical steps:

Planning and analysis
Leasing
Site assessment
Construction and operations

Doug Boren is BOEM’s Pacific Regional Supervisor for the Office of Strategic Resources. Boren explained that next steps expand the request for interest in commercial projects. Since the receipt of TW’s idea, BOEM and California established an offshore project team, which will make final decisions about whether to allow a lease, and where.

BOEM could accept, or reject, TW’s siting proposal. BOEM could propose an alternate site. Once siting is settled, however, BOEM would announce what it refers to as a “call and nomination” for commercial interest in that now official site. Boren expects BOEM will be ready with that next step in about six months. At that point, TW and Statoil would reevaluate their interest — either stepping back from the project or recommitting.

The regulatory wheels are just getting started. There are complex, and unusual challenges. TW’s proposed lease-site, for example, is close to undersea natural resource preserves. Commercial shipping interests have questioned BOEM about ship transit. Off-shore infrastructure (not just wind projects) can divert shipping lanes, forcing ships to operate too close to shore, or too far. Finally, the safety and dependability of a sea-based power station and its complex underwater infrastructure, particularly one with new technology, presents a range of questions regarding impacts on fish and marine wildlife.

New ideas always raise new questions. There’s plenty of work ahead, but it’s getting started.

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