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Can offshore windmills save the planet—or at least California—from ruin?

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The East Coast has led the way in offshore wind projects domestically, but for many years, commercial fishermen along the Atlantic were among the biggest critics of the development of a wind farm off the coast of Rhode Island and New York. That project came online in 2016 and, irony of ironies, fishermen there are now charging windmill tourists for a boat ride to go check out the aesthetically appealing wind turbines, says Collins.

"People are really intrigued with this," says Collins. "There's a fusion of this renewable energy technology with new maritime opportunities. We've seen it in Germany—a tourism industry bubbling up."

California fishermen were at the table as the AJP put together its private-public blueprint for California, she adds, and have been since an intergovernmental task force was created at the beginning of the BOEM wind-farm lease process in 2016. What's needed moving forward, she says, is data. "We need more data on fisheries, that's one thing." Fishermen have given input to the renewables industry on issues such as whale migration patterns, she says.

Land-bound aesthetic concerns won't be an issue, she adds, given that the turbines will be tethered about 20 miles offshore and out of view—or barely visible—from land. Besides, she says, after the installation of the wind farm off of Rhode Island, a survey of tourists there found that only one in 10 had a problem with the visible windmills.

Collins says the mainline environmental groups—Sierra Club, the National Resources Defense Fund—have submitted comments under the lease proposal that indicates that they're open to offshore wind farm development. "They are not against it but want it to happen in the right way," says Collins.

The Sierra Club has applauded offshore wind project developments on the East Coast and says on its website, "Offshore wind is a key part of transitioning our nation off dirty energy sources like coal, and toward our clean energy future."

Still, there are concerns that these new proposed leases could be a portent for what's to come. There's a possibility that wind farms could one day appear in California's coastal marine sanctuaries, says Paul Michel, superintendent for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which stretches from San Luis Obispo County to Marin County's Rocky Point, seven miles north of the Golden Gate. Just beyond the sanctuary's border there are two more, including the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, which stretches all the way to Point Arena.

Oil drilling is prohibited in the sanctuaries, barring a reversal from the feds, but Michel, who works under the federal National and Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), says that sanctuary officials are working on a permitting process that could potentially allow wind farms in these protected areas.

So what's in it for Sonoma and Marin counties? Potentially a lot, says Collins, especially given recent events surrounding PG&E.

The AJP proposal notes that offshore wind projects could sync with the emergent and growing community choice aggregation movement, where counties and regions are determining their energy future through a mix of renewables. Offshore wind could be a dynamic addition to the mix. The AJP estimates that there's enough wind energy blowing offshore to provide California with one and a half times its annual electricity needs. The proposals in Humboldt and Morro Bay aim to harvest 18 kw a year through an array of the floating windmills. In Huffman's view, ideally, the energy would be created and utilized by the Redwood Coast Energy Authority (the local CCA)—and as Collins notes, could also be procured by the regional CCAs Sonoma Clean Power and Marin Clean Energy, which purchase renewable energy from solar and wind farms that are often many miles down the electric wire from the point of consumption. "There's way more energy potential than there is demand" in Humboldt County, says Huffman.

The offshore wind farm push from AJP arrives as the state is engaged in multiple legislative efforts and discussions about how to upgrade its electric grid, especially in light of the recent catastrophic wildfires and how they've put the finger on the aging grid. The CCAs rely on that same grid to deliver renewable energy to its customers—whether it's from local geothermal sources, or from massive solar panel farms or distant wind farms.

"One question we have to ask," says Collins, "especially with the PG&E fallout, is: can the Marin and Sonoma CCAs be early procurers of this and share the costs and benefits of this new technology?"

Speaking personally, Collins notes that the PG&E bankruptcy has raised broader questions about power-grid systems as they relate to wildfire risk. And again, she says, this is where offshore wind can be a win-win.

She decries "proposals to connect us to high wind areas in Wyoming—we'd build these long-range transmission lines from Wyoming to California to connect us to areas of wind."

The argument often made against cross-state power procurement is that it bleeds jobs from California. "But I think the issue is one of fire risk," says Collins. "Why don't we instead look at offshore resources closer to home?"

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