California Tilts at Windmills
The state’s new offshore-wind goal is an ill-conceived plan that will cost taxpayers billions of dollars.
California has banned the sale of internal combustion cars and light trucks beginning in 2035, natural-gas furnaces from 2030, and small gas engines starting in 2024. The state’s newest green plan is to install 5,000 megawatts (MW) of offshore wind by 2030 and 25,000 MW by 2045. That’s an average of 1,400 MW of new offshore wind yearly for the next 18 years—the equivalent of erecting one 14 MW turbine every four days for the next 23 years. Unfortunately, this is a fantasy so wild that even Don Quixote would blush—one that lawmakers should abandon if they’re serious about finding emissions-free solutions for the state’s pressing energy needs.
A key reason the plan won’t work lies at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific outer continental shelf is much steeper and shorter than the gentle-sloped Atlantic one, where eight states have imposed offshore wind mandates. Unless California intends to erect 850-foot tall, 14 MW behemoths—the current state of the art—near the shore, where they will upset the pristine views of wealthy residents, the state will need to use floating turbines to meet its goals. The coastal waters far enough offshore for turbines to remain unseen are too deep for seafloor anchoring.
Today, just three small floating wind turbine installations exist anywhere: two in Scotland, with a total capacity of 80 MW, and a 25 MW one in Portugal. Between them, they represent 14 turbines, all far smaller than the 14 and 15 MW wind turbines intended for the numerous Atlantic coast developments. Another facility off the Norwegian coast will install a total of 11 turbines producing 8.6 MW each, or 94.6 MW in total, at a cost of about $500 million. That’s more than $5.2 million per MW.
Offshore-wind proponents claim that costs will fall as the technology matures. Some even claim that offshore wind is less costly today than natural-gas generation. But these claims are belied by economics—artificially increasing the demand for something leads to higher prices, not lower ones—and by actual numbers. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the projected price tag for offshore wind in 2027 will be more than four times that of natural gas combined-cycle plants and 50 percent more expensive than new nuclear plants. Floating turbines will be costlier still.
Even if one ignores current supply-chain issues, shortages of undersea cable, and the small number of the necessary specialized ships available to erect turbines, floating turbines are simply more costly and more challenging to install than fixed turbines.
One complexity is that they require special cables, both to anchor them to the sea floor and to transmit the electricity they generate. The cables must be able to bend and move as the turbines bob up and down in the water, especially in high seas. That presents both engineering and materials challenges, along with costs 30 percent to 50 percent higher than static cables.
Offshore-wind turbines also require periodic upkeep. Though they can be towed to shore for repairs, that presumes that offshore facilities are there to handle them. Where in California will these be built? The Port of Los Angeles? Half Moon Bay? One can easily imagine the howls of outrage over the construction of large onshore facilities near offshore wind sites.
Then there’s the challenge of getting the electricity generated to land. One of many contentious issues surrounding the 1,100 MW Ocean Wind project off the New Jersey coast is where the undersea cables will be brought to shore. The current alternative calls for building a substation in Ocean City, but local residents are challenging it. In famously NIMBY California, bringing offshore cables onto California beaches, along with building the necessary substations and transmission lines to deliver the power to cities, would face ferocious opposition. Buried cables can also become unburied by tidal action, as happened with the 30 MW Block Island wind farm off the Rhode Island coast. It took two years to rebury that project’s single cable.
Finally, how will California integrate 25,000 MW of intermittent offshore wind with an already teetering power grid? During an early-September heat wave, the state narrowly avoided major blackouts caused by a lack of generating capacity, especially during peak demand hours in the early evening, when the thousands of MW of solar photovoltaics in the state provide nothing. Integrating more solar and all of that offshore wind will require the construction of vast amounts of battery storage, consuming huge quantities of raw materials, including lithium, which has quadrupled in price in the last year alone. The alternative to battery storage will be what proponents call dispatchable emissions-free generators—basically gas turbines that run on pure hydrogen. But these generators and the hydrogen infrastructure to support them don’t even exist today.
Like the $100 billion (and rising) bullet train to nowhere, California’s offshore wind goal will not be met. But the state’s beleaguered consumers and businesses, already paying some of the highest electric rates in the nation, are sure to pay billions of dollars more in the years ahead. Lawmakers should get serious about finding solutions that actually work—and relieve Californians from footing the bill for tilting-at-windmills escapades in the meantime.
Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images
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