Earlier this year, after the federal government leased 583 square miles of deep-ocean waters off the coast of California for offshore wind farms, California governor Gavin Newsom said that “offshore wind energy has gone from a distant pipedream to a burgeoning reality.” Maybe—but it’s hard to imagine an energy project that is costlier, riskier, or less practical.
When completed, the project is set to deliver 4.5 gigawatts of electricity to the California grid. But because even the steadiest offshore winds blow only intermittently, the average production of the turbines will be around 1.8 gigawatts—just 5 percent of California’s current electricity consumption. If California goes all-electric, as state regulators insist it must, these wind farms will represent, at best, 2 percent of the electricity the state will require. “California is pinning a lot of hopes on an industry that scarcely exists today,” notes an MIT Technology Review article.
The world’s biggest wind turbines can produce ten megawatts at full output. But these machines are 1,000 feet tall—nearly four times higher than the Statue of Liberty, including its base. Intended to float 20 miles offshore in the Pacific Ocean, California’s comparatively smaller turbines must stay upright through storms, tsunamis, and earthquakes, remaining in a fixed position via cables stretching from the bottom of the floating tower to anchors in the seabed more than 4,000 feet under water. Along with the challenge of building and maintaining them in a hostile marine environment, the turbines risk affecting birds, whales, and other animals, not to mention boats and ships. Generating 1.8 net gigawatts will require building and floating 450 of these giants of the deep.
One might ask the environmentalists behind this proposal about the energy required for construction and deployment. Where will the raw materials needed for construction come from? How many ships will the project require? How many submarines and divers? How many port facilities? How many new homes for the construction workers? What about the batteries needed to store up to 4.5 gigawatts of on-again, off-again electricity? What about the ongoing maintenance? What about the billions that will flow into the pockets of the special interests behind this project, paid for by taxpayers and ratepayers? Publicly available reports answering these and other questions are hard to come by at this stage of the process.
California has a culture of innovation that goes back nearly two centuries. It is understandable that it would be inspired to set an example for the world. But the fatal flaw in California’s renewable-energy strategy is that other nations aren’t looking to the Golden State for leadership in this area. For everyone on earth to consume half as much energy per capita as Americans do, global energy production needs to double. Because energy is the foundation of prosperity, this needs to happen fast, and in an affordable manner.
Californians, then, must develop new energy infrastructure that is practical and cost-effective. Instead of decommissioning its natural gas power plants, the state could upgrade them to the most advanced technologies available. Current combined-cycle designs harvest waste heat from the natural-gas-fired turbine to produce steam to drive a second turbine; new designs replace steam with helium, greatly improving efficiency. California could also opt to be at the forefront of both small modular and large next-generation nuclear reactor development, creating plants that generate emissions-free gigawatts of electricity. And on transportation, the California legislature could make a priority of upgrading the state’s roads to accommodate high-speed, self-driving vehicles—rather than banning the sale of everything but all-electric vehicles by 2035, reducing choice while foreclosing the possibility of future innovation.
Instead, Newsom is prioritizing offshore wind farms at a stupefying financial and environmental cost. California, and America, can indeed set an example to the world, but only if that example is one the world is willing to follow. On energy infrastructure—that boring but nonnegotiable prerequisite for any prosperous civilization—California has yet to live up to its illustrious legacy or its undeniable potential.