The first-ever federal auction of floating offshore wind power sites off the Pacific coast ended Wednesday with bids totaling $757 million. When fully developed, the sites could power 1.5 million homes.
The turbines will float in water as much as half a mile deep more than 20 miles off the California coast and send electricity ashore via cables along the seabed. The money paid by the five winning companies will go to the U.S. Treasury.
"Today’s lease sale is further proof that industry momentum – including for floating offshore wind development – is undeniable,” said Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.
They mark the beginnings of a critical U.S.-based industry to build floating offshore wind turbines and the technology and know-how that goes with them, said Stephanie McClellan, executive director of Turn Forward, an offshore wind advocacy organization.
"We’re excited that the vast potential of offshore wind on the west coast is on its way to fruition," she said. "Now California – and the United States – have an opportunity to be a major global exporter for the offshore floating wind industry."
Many countries around the Pacific rim have the same kinds of geography that California does, making it an ideal testbed.
"It's an area within which we could become a global hub. One lease auction doesn't make that happen, but it clearly locates California as a major player in the global floating offshore wind marketplace," said McClellan, whose organization launched last month.
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First off the Pacific coast
The leases were offered by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which oversees offshore energy and mineral projects. Each lease is for 25 years.
The leases were for two areas, one off the coast near Eureka, near the Oregon border, and one off the southern California coast near Morro Bay, north of Santa Barbara.
These deep-water sites are all 20 miles and more offshore, enough that they will largely not be visible to people onshore.
Together, the sites include five separate lease areas that collectively could host several hundred turbines and produce more than 4.5 gigawatts of power, according to BOEM.
The sale of the leases is an important moment for the United States because it shows the country is embracing deepwater wind energy development.
Prior to this, most US offshore wind projects were in shallow water where they could be anchored to the bottom. Floating wind platforms, much like floating oil rigs, are fixed to the ocean floor with mooring lines like a ship's anchor.
Open-ocean, floating turbines can be much larger than land-based ones. The hub of the blades on land is typically about 308 feet, as tall as the Statue of Liberty. In deep water, it's anticipated the hub could be as tall as 500 feet, the height of the Washington Monument.
The blades of these turbines can be up to 360 feet long and produce a lot of electricity. A single turbine can churn out 15 megawatts of energy, enough to power 5,000 homes.
The leases are only the first part of a relatively long road. Assessment, construction and planning requirements mean the projects won't likely start for at least five years.
Eastern lease sales netted $4.37 billion
The sites went for significantly less than an East coast lease auction in February. In that auction, six companies agreed to pay a record-breaking $4.37 billion for the right to build wind turbines more than three miles off the coasts of New York and New Jersey, a major milestone for U.S. renewable energy efforts.
That was the Department of the Interior's highest-grossing energy auction in U.S. history, including oil and gas leases.
The New York/New Jersey leases went for more money than the California ones for two reasons.
First, they were in relatively shallow water and the turbines can be fixed to the bottom, a well-known technology that's been used extensively in Europe and is ready to deploy. Floating turbine technology exists but is not as fully built-out.
The other is that New York and New Jersey both had set a binding commitment to purchase 16.5 gigawatts of offshore wind, whereas California has only set a planning goal of 25 gigawatts.
"That is an incredibly important goal and provides tremendous visibility for stakeholders to see where California is in its thinking about offshore wind. But it doesn't provide that business certainty that New York and New Jersey did," said McClellan.
Part of a Biden push
The Biden administration has made a big bet that offshore floating wind turbines will produce a significant amount of cheap energy while creating new and lucrative industries.
An initiative announced in September will invest nearly $50 million to boost floating offshore wind turbine technology, an area the U.S. has lagged in. It could propel the country to the forefront of cutting-edge climate technology.
“What we’re doing is positioning ourselves to lead the world in floating offshore wind,” said White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy.
The announcement included:
A goal of deploying 15 gigawatts of floating offshore wind by 2035, enough to power 5 million homes.
Reducing the cost of electricity from floating wind turbines by 70%, to just 4.5 cents per kilowatt by 2035, less than the cost of electricity from fossil fuels.
A $6.8 million prize competition for floating offshore wind platform technologies.
Offshore wind is expected to become increasingly important as the world shifts away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy such as wind, solar and nuclear.
"Over 80% of the wind resources globally are in deep water," said John Olav Giæver Tande, chief scientist at SINTEF, a Norwegian research institute known for its work on wind energy.
The sea is a good place for wind
Placing turbines far out to sea has multiple advantages, experts say.
First, the ocean is windy. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates U.S. offshore wind has the potential to generate up to 2,000 gigawatts of electricity, nearly double the amount the United States currently uses.
Ocean winds also blow more consistently and tend to peak in the evening, just as power from solar arrays drops.
Today, offshore wind turbines are still an expensive way to produce energy compared with other methods, but that is changing rapidly.
Electricity from all wind turbines was 70% cheaper in 2021 than it was in 2009, according to Lazard, a financial advisory firm that publishes annual estimates on energy production costs.
Experts told the Department of Energy in 2021 they expect offshore wind costs to fall by as much as another 35% by 2035, and almost 50% by 2050.
The United States, which has thousands of miles of coastline and world-class offshore wind, is especially well-positioned to capitalize on this energy resource.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pacific Coast offshore wind auction nets $757M in California