This opinion piece is part of a series from Energy Innovation’s policy experts on advancing an affordable, resilient and clean energy system. It was written by Mike O’Boyle, director of electricity policy, and Michelle Solomon, policy analyst.
The West Coast is known for vast renewable energy potential: solar in California and hydropower in the Pacific Northwest. But its long coastline offers an untapped clean energy resource with massive potential for states and the nation — offshore wind.
Achieving President Biden’s goal of 100% clean power nationwide by 2035 is possible with only onshore resources. The same is true for California, Oregon and Washington’s ambitious clean energy goals. But land use, siting and permitting challenges mean scaling up offshore wind greatly increases their likelihood of success. Tapping this potential would also bolster grid reliability and create jobs.
Unfortunately, the United States lacks offshore wind ambition, particularly along the West Coast, where no established deployment targets exist. East Coast states, in contrast, are targeting more than 30,000 megawatts of capacity by 2035. And while President Biden announced a national goal of 30,000 MW by 2030, he has not designated a specific West Coast target.
West Coast offshore wind is enjoying promising tailwinds. California’s AB 525 directs the California Energy Commission to set planning goals through 2045, and Oregon’s HB 3375 requires its Department of Energy to identify benefits and challenges of 3,000 MW of offshore wind by 2030.
The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has also designated call areas off the California and Oregon coasts and begun an environmental assessment, with conditional approval by the California Coastal Commission. BOEM also announced a proposed sale notice for two wind energy areas in California, with an estimated potential of 4,500 MW.
This is a good start, but much more is needed to develop West Coast wind and accelerate the transition to a reliable clean grid. Federal tax credits can help floating wind technology achieve commercial scale with cost reductions similar to onshore wind and solar technologies. Funding for port upgrades and transmission along with policies to accelerate the pace of leasing, siting and permitting will speed development.
Combined with state action to incorporate offshore wind into planning and procurement, these federal policies can move floating turbines from a niche resource to a core strategy for cleaning the grid.
Moving floating offshore wind technology from niche to scale
Fixed bottom offshore wind is taking off, with 55,000 MW deployed worldwide. But this technology is infeasible on the West Coast due to much deeper waters. Developing offshore wind in these deeper waters requires floating turbines affixed to the seabed with long cables.
Floating offshore wind technology has a key advantage over onshore wind: size. Today’s largest offshore turbines total 15 MW capacity, capable of powering about 20,000 households, and 18 MW turbines are expected soon, compared to 3-6 MW for onshore turbines. It also has an environmental advantage — eliminating noisy pile driving for fixed bottom foundations is less disruptive for migrating marine mammals and other wildlife.
While floating turbine technology is mature, it is not as commercially widespread as fixed bottom turbines. Policy is needed to scale floating turbines in the U.S., but researchers expect floating and fixed offshore wind costs will converge in the long-term due to technological similarities.
Successful demonstration projects have spurred major floating wind contracts, including 5,000 MW off Scotland’s coast. More than 25,000 MW of floating offshore wind projects are in the global pipeline, and 3,600 MW will come online in the next five years.
Getting to 100% clean faster and more reliably with floating wind
The U.S. electricity grid must be 70% to 80% clean by 2030 to achieve the country’s Paris Agreement goals. Given our current grid size, the U.S. could get there with onshore wind, solar and batteries. However, to reach net-zero emissions and support growing electrification, the grid must expand to add more diverse clean resources, all while overcoming land use constraints.
Offshore wind can be a crucial part of this diverse clean portfolio. A recent working paper from the University of California, Berkeley, shows West Coast offshore wind would deliver power when the Western grid needs it most — in the early evening as the sun goes down — with more consistency due to stronger ocean winds and larger turbines. The consistency and complementary nature of offshore wind power would enhance reliability, which will prove even more critical for an increasingly climate-stressed grid.
Revitalizing West Coast port communities
Tapping offshore wind’s potential would create new clean energy jobs and reinvigorate port communities. The University of Southern California’s Schwarzenegger Institute estimates 10,000 MW of California offshore wind development would create 120,000 to 180,000 job-years, including 4,000 permanent operations and maintenance jobs by 2040. Policies to support local component manufacturing, could create up to 50,000 additional job-years through 2040.
Floating turbine development could also revive historic deep-water port communities. The CEC approved a $10.5 million grant for investments in the Port of Humboldt Bay to support offshore wind. An economic assessment found the terminal could generate as many as 830 local jobs and more than $130 million in industry output over a five-year period. But much larger investments are needed to realize this economic opportunity.
Port upgrades are even more crucial to floating offshore wind compared to fixed bottom turbines, as the floating platforms must be assembled on shore and towed to their designated location. Investment in just a few ports could support installations across hundreds of miles of coastline. This infrastructure spending should happen now to prevent port capacity from becoming a bottleneck.
Unleashing wind with smart policy
Offshore floating wind can provide new economic growth and be a much-needed source of reliable clean power for the Western U.S., but the projects are massive and complex. A handful of federal and state policies can work together to speed its commercial deployment.
Congress should extend the floating offshore wind production tax credit for at least 10 to 15 years at $25 per megawatt-hour as a foundational policy that provides certainty to developers, cuts costs, and helps scale this technology.
Congress should also dedicate funding for West Coast port and manufacturing cluster development to support the necessary infrastructure. Tying this funding to strong labor requirements and community benefit agreements can ensure local economies benefit without compromising air quality.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Congress can both support transmission to connect Western offshore wind with the rest of the Western grid — FERC via planning and Congress with funding. An offshore subsea cable linking production along the West Coast would be the least-cost, highest-benefit approach.
The Biden administration can encourage responsible, timely offshore wind siting by accelerating BOEM’s leasing process, particularly designating new areas for leasing and study beyond the four currently under consideration. Responsible siting should include funding for collecting and sharing data on offshore wind’s ecological impacts.
While federal action is necessary for most offshore wind projects due to their placement in federal waters, West Coast states should proactively plan and promote offshore wind to maximize benefits to their residents and grids. States should update offshore wind cost figures based on the state of today’s technology and include estimates for five years due to long timelines from decisions to procurement. By incorporating expected cost declines, states can accurately assess the benefits of offshore wind.
West Coast states can also require utilities to include at least one scenario during integrated resource planning that features offshore wind, including quantified resource diversity benefits, to ensure diverse portfolios are considered. Instituting competitive procurement will also allow offshore wind to compete on equal footing with other resources. Finally, an interstate working group on offshore wind and transmission development can assess resiliency benefits of proposals like a subsea transmission link and increase project planning efficiency.
Planning now to unleash tailwinds in the future
Offshore wind can have significant reliability, economic and climate benefits but policy action is needed now. Coordinated federal and state action can provide financial incentives, prepare for new infrastructure needs, accelerate leasing and permitting, and incorporate offshore wind into state planning and procurement processes. With all West Coast states committed to 100% clean electricity and unmatched offshore wind resources, planning for this technology today will provide smooth sailing tomorrow.