In the early 20sTh century, the U.S. Census Bureau declared Humboldt County, California—now famous for its redwoods—the “principal center” of the state’s lumber industry. In 1900, the product accounted for nearly 60 percent of the region’s exports.
But, while Humboldt Bay is still home to lumber yards and suppliers of wood, the industry has regressed.
“You look at old photographs of Humboldt Bay from back then and there’s mills everywhere, pulp mills and ships and docks,” said Matthew Marshall, executive director of the Redwood Coast Energy Authority. “As that retracted there’s a lot of available land and waterfront …. So, there’s a big opportunity.”
The Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA)—a power organization formed by the County of Humboldt and Northern Californian cities such as Trinidad and Eureka—has been working for years to prepare for that opportunity. RCEA submitted an unrequested application to the U.S. Department of the Interior for the purpose of building wind energy in waters west of Humboldt Bay in 2018.
This bid attracted the attention of offshore wind companies around the world. Many drew up plans to build off California’s coast. The U.S. government suggested several locations where wind projects might work. The state’s progress has been slow so far. The East Coast began to build its ports and pilot projects, as well as preparing designs for offshore wind hubs.
California—while a beacon when it comes to climate policies—has not been a trailblazer in offshore wind. The Golden State is currently missing a potential golden opportunity because of technological challenges in the deep Pacific waters and political struggles that have prevented many types of energy projects from being realized.
However, the Biden administration has been receptive to the potential wind power off the West Coast. They want to increase clean energy production across the country in an effort to reduce climate change. Ports along the West Coast, and particularly the Port of Humboldt, about 270 miles north of San Francisco, are jockeying to capture the attention of an industry that’s anticipating significant growth in coming years.
Port infrastructure is “foundationally important” to the offshore wind industry, said Arne Jacobson, who directs Humboldt State University’s Schatz Energy Research Center. Huge, heavy turbines must be manufactured and constructed on land before they’re taken out to sea. Humboldt will need to demolish the terminals that once supported the lumber industry over decades and replace them with a modern infrastructure that can support wind-turbines as tall or taller than the Golden Gate Bridge.
Until recently, the state’s technological challenges had been matched with political ones. California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that requires state officials create a plan to address offshore wind. U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haland stated that the federal government intends to sell seven offshore wind leasing contracts by 2025. Californian sales will be made next year.
Industry supporters in Humboldt and developers interested in the area have been waiting for this type a momentum.
After the 2018 bid from RCEA, Larry Oetker, head of the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District, said a parade of “the who’s who of the offshore wind industry” began turning up to his office in Humboldt County, ready to sell him. This agency is responsible to ensure Humboldt has the infrastructure necessary to support the industry.
It took nearly a year to sink in that message, which was relayed to Oetker from representatives of the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the California Energy Commission.
The agency has been working on a two-phase transformation plan for the port. It plans to replace six acres worth of wood pilings and build a terminal capable supporting modern energy infrastructure. Oetker and his small team of just 11 people consulted with development staff of multinational offshore wind giants like Equinor and Ørsted and with port officials in the Netherlands, Belgium and New York to determine the path forward.
Most essential to the plan is a “heavy-lift terminal,” basically a huge dock that can support the weight and size of different wind turbine components, including blades longer than a football field and towers nearly as tall as the Washington Monument. Because California’s deep waters require floating offshore wind technologies, those gigantic structures will then get towed out to sea.
Construction out in the ocean also requires a nearby operations port to support smaller vessels associated with projects, said Shane Phillips, a civil engineer who specializes in coastal planning at infrastructure consulting firm Moffatt & Nichol. If manufacturing comes to Humboldt—as the Harbor District hopes—the area would need a fabrication facility that can access the dock where turbines are assembled.
“Is it a network of ports? Or is it more done on-site? Those are things that still need to get worked out in the coming years,” said Phillips, who worked on a study on West Coast offshore wind infrastructure for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM).
The Port of Humboldt already enjoys many of the qualities that make it a promising contender for the West’s offshore wind hub.
The port isn’t shadowed by a bridge and has waters deep enough to support floating turbines. Its location is also hard to beat; Humboldt Bay lies just about two dozen miles inland from one of two ocean “call areas” the federal government designated for development off the California coast. It also provides access to Washington, Oregon, as well as the California parts to its south.
BOEM, an agency within the Interior Department that designates where developers can build offshore energy projects, hasn’t approved any such areas in Southern California. But bustling ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach are already overwhelmed with international shipping, meaning they’re less likely to have the capacity to support offshore wind, said Marshall with RCEA.
Humboldt Bay, on the other hand, is “ready for something new,” he said.
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Of course, not everyone is in agreement. Fishing groups have expressed concerns about the effects of installations on the industry, while environmentalists are concerned about the possible impact on ocean habitats for marine mammals and seabirds.
“We understand that [wind is] pivotal and important in avoiding consequences of climate change,” said Delia Bense-Kang, a Humboldt County resident who grew up in the region and now coordinates campaigns for an ocean protection nonprofit called the Surfrider Foundation. “We want this to be done well and to not cause more damage.”
Other community members have expressed doubts about a rush of outside investment with little local benefit—a dynamic of extraction that’s haunted Humboldt since its lumber days. Jacobson acknowledged that there is interest and RCEA can help to ease some of the concerns.
The $11.6 million state grant was given to the Port of Humboldt in order to pay for any changes that could be made along the coast. Oetker stated that the costs could run from $250 million to $300 million. The Harbor District applied recently for a $56million grant from the federal government.
If awarded, the money would arrive on time. The September 2022 date was set by the Biden administration as the goal for the first California lease sale. Those leases are a key aspect of the Biden administration’s ambitions to reach 100 percent clean electricity in the coming decades, with at least 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030.
Source: Inside Climate News