California has set an 'aspirational' goal of generating 25 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2045.
Building new wind farms off the California coast is the next step in meeting the state's goal of 100 percent renewable energy by the year 2045. Ionna22 / Wikimedia Commons C.C. 4.0 Share-Alike License
Gov. Jerry Brown, toward the end of his second eight-year term in office, signed a landmark climate law that requires California to provide 100 percent of its electricity from “clean” energy sources by the year 2045. The new goal was the culmination of a four-decade effort that began during Brown’s initial period as governor. In 1980, after Brown had been in office for about five years and the legislature had passed a 25 percent tax credit for investment in renewable energy, the country’s first “utility-scale” wind farm went online.
The wind farm was located in the Altamont Pass region in the Diablo Range spanning Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Within just the next five years, thanks to $1 billion worth of tax credits (which included a 15 percent federal credit, passed by Congress in 1978), California had 1,700 megawatts of wind power capacity, or about 90 percent of all wind power worldwide.
Today, while California remains a prodigious wind-energy producer and is home to the United States' single largest wind farm, the Alta Wind Energy Center in Kern County about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, the state has lost ground as wind energy development has slowed. Despite the state-level commitment to wind and other renewables, county governments have not been friendly to wind energy facilities.
California Falling Behind in the Wind Race
In 2013, San Diego County imposed strict limits on wind farm development, and in 2015 Los Angeles County, the state’s largest, banned wind turbines on all unincorporated land. The Los Angeles Board of Supervisors complaints were typical of those heard in other areas of the state and country: primarily visual “blight,” noise, and danger to birds.
As of April 2020, California ranked fifth with 5,973 megawatts (mw) of capacity, far behind the new leader, Texas, with its 28,843mw of production capacity. In terms of annual energy output, in 2020 wind was California’s third-largest source, generating 11.4 percent of the state’s electricity. (Natural gas topped the list at 37.9 percent.)
To meet its ambitious goal of eliminating the state’s reliance on non-renewable energy sources, California will need to find a way to build more wind capacity. The new frontier is not on state land at all, but in the waters of the Pacific Ocean.
What is Wind Energy?
Wind energy is actually a form of solar power, because wind results from the sun heating the atmosphere. Due to irregularities in the Earth’s surface such as hills and valleys, as well as the rotation of the Earth itself, the sun heats the air quite unevenly, creating areas of high and low air pressure. Air naturally flows from where pressure is high to where it’s lower. That air-flow is what we feel as wind.
Human beings have known that the wind is a plentiful source of energy for centuries, even millenia. The first recorded use of wind power dates back to 5,000 BC, the first known use of wind to power boats on the Nile River in Egypt. A few thousand years later, around 900 BC, the first windmills appeared in Persia where they were used to grind grain and pump water, wind providing the energy that powered civilization’s first mass food production. Roughly 2,000 years after that, windmills began appearing in the Netherlands and other northern European countries.
When we talk about modern-day wind energy we're talking about wind turbines—machines that convert wind energy into electricity. Groups of turbines constructed together in one area are wind farms.
How Does Wind Create Electricity?
That electricity from wind farms is channeled through power lines into a state or national power grid where it can be bought and sold by power companies or government entities and used by everyday people to power their homes and businesses, their light bulbs, televisions, washing machines, computers and so on.
Wind turbines, like windmills before them, look like giant propellers. Even a mild breeze will cause the propellers to rotate. The spinning propeller blades turn a shaft connected to a generator that converts the kinetic energy of the spinning shaft into usable electricity. The electricity is then channeled through a transformer that pumps up the voltage and moves the power onto the grid, where it eventually finds its way to consumers.
Wind Energy Not Without its Problems
Wind energy produces zero greenhouse gas emissions, the dangerous byproduct of fossil fuels largely responsible for climate change. The wind industry comes with other benefits as well—it creates jobs. “Wind turbine service technician” is projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to be the second-fastest growing job description between 2020 and 2030.
Wind energy is produced domestically, helping America reinforce its energy independence, and wind turbines and farms, though they can be expensive to build and install, come with relatively low operating costs compared to other forms of energy production.
There is a downside, however. The towering turbines are often seen as marring scenic landscapes, and can also be a source of noise pollution as the giant blades rotate in the wind. But perhaps the most disturbing hazard of wind farms is the threat they pose to wildlife.
According to the Sierra Club, wind turbines kill more than one million birds every year in the U.S. While that number is certainly horrifying, it should be noted that it is a small number compared to the annual bird death toll mounted by plain old, everyday widows. Birds die at an estimated rate of more than 980 million per year from flying into glass windows, mostly on ordinary buildings between four and 11 stories tall.
Moving Wind Farms Offshore
In May of 2022, the Biden administration announced the first-ever sale of wind farm leases in waters off the California coast. The administration proposed leasing three areas: the Morro Bay Wind Energy Area, about 20 miles off the coast of San Luis Obispo County; and two portions of the Humboldt Wind Energy Area, a 206-square mile region of ocean sitting 21 miles off the shore of Eureka.
According to the federal Department of the Interior, the total amount of ocean territory set aside for offshore wind farms would be 373,268 acres, and the turbines that could be built there would generate 4.5 gigawatts of electricity, enough to power 1.5 million homes.
The State of California is even more ambitious. According to a report by the California Energy Commission issued in August 2022, the state has set an “aspirational” goal of 25 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2045. (The Biden administration has set a nationwide goal of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030.)
Why take wind energy offshore? Most importantly, turbines stationed out to sea are simply better at producing electricity. Wind speeds are higher over the water than on land, and with the flat surface of the ocean, wind changes direction less often. That means each turbine produces more energy, so fewer turbines need to be in operation to produce the same amount of power as a wind farm on land.
Oceans also offer more space to build wind farms, and being situated miles offshore eliminates the visual obstruction and noise pollution problems. Wind farms placed miles out into the ocean will need to float, rather than sit atop large posts fastened to the ocean floor, reducing the need to drill. Fixed-post turbines cannot be constructed in water more than 165 feet deep.
Floating turbines are constructed on land then moved to their locations offshore by boat, then connected to the seabed by cables. But even floating turbines pose environmental risks. The cables may entangle whales, dolphins and sea turtles. Additionally, the noise produced by the turbines could interfere with whales and dolphins that use echolocation—a kind of natural sonar—to locate feeding grounds, find mates and dodge predators.
Nonetheless, with its goal of 100 percent clean energy by 2050, the U.S. government is proceeding with offshore wind. In 2021, the White House announced that the Department of Energy had invested $100 million into researching and developing floating offshore wind farms.
The International Energy Agency estimates that for the planet to reach the goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the world must increase wind power capacity by 390 gigawatts every year over the next two decades, including 80 gigawatts of offshore wind power annually.
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