It’s On! US DOD Greenlights Pacific Coast Offshore Wind

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Good things come to those who wait, and California is a case in point. The state’s massive coastline is ripe for offshore wind development, except for that little thing about technology challenges. Then there’s that whole other thing about the strategic importance of the Pacific coast and not interfering with US Department of Defense training missions and other operations. Now the DOD is finally on board with the offshore plan, and they made it clear that the threat of catastrophic climate change tipped the scales.

DOD Never Stopped Loving Renewable Energy

The DOD took many potshots at coal, oil, and natural gas during the Obama administration by nailing down an early-adopter position on solar power and energy efficiency, among other clean tech ventures. The DOD took up the mantle of climate hawk, as most eloquently expressed by former Navy Secretary Ray Maybus and affirmed by the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense review.

The DOD’s climate message did not exactly resonate during Trump administration, but if the Trump administration tried to clip DOD’s wings, it failed. The DOD continued to advance renewable energy R&D projects at a good clip, with broad implications for accelerating decarbonization.

One good example is a renewables-friendly, multi-building diesel-killing microgrid that began development during the Obama administration. The R&D work continued during the Trump administration, with the aim of boosting resiliency during power disruptions. Apparently the old method of hooking individual buildings up to their own individual diesel generators is not the ideal solution for national defense.

Generators might fail to start, and if a building’s backup power system doesn’t start, there is no way to use power from another building’s generator. Most generators are oversized for the load and run at less-than-optimal capacity, and excess fuel is consumed. Furthermore, safety requirements state that all renewable energy sources on base must disconnect when off-site power is lost,” observed the Energy Department’s Sandia National Laboratory back in 2016.

In the coal-killing department, one especially interesting, long-running US military project that continued to move forward during the Trump administration is a satellite-based system for shuttling solar energy to Earth, anywhere, anytime.

Then there’s the floating solar panel field. In the runup to the 2020 General Election last fall, the Department of the Army made a big deal out of its test sight for new floating solar panel technology at Fort Bragg, which is billed as the largest installation of its kind in the world (that’s the whole facility, not the solar panels).

Climate Crisis Tips Balance On Offshore Wind

Was the Army trying to tell us something? If it was, it got message-bombed by the Air Force. Right around  the same time last fall, the Air Force articulated a vision for a carbon-negative Department of Defense and laid out a plan for leveraging its existing AFWERKS innovation catalyst to turbocharge decarbonization.

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at the words spoken by Dr. Colin Kahl, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, who was tasked with joining the Department of the Interior in yesterday’s big announcement on offshore wind for the Pacific coast.

Tackling the climate crisis is a national security imperative and the Defense Department is proud to have played a role in this important effort,” he said. “The Defense Department is committed to working across the U.S. government to find solutions that support renewable energy in a manner compatible with essential military operations.”

“The Defense Department applauds this step and looks forward to continued coordination to address the climate crisis,” he concluded, having definitively linked the climate crisis to national security by saying the actual words “climate crisis” twice in one quote about national security.

Finally, Offshore Wind For The Pacific Coast

To be clear, the DOD’s concerns were not the only thing standing in the way of a festoon of offshore wind turbines for the California coastline. The Pacific coast is characterized by deep waters, and that prevents the kind of fixed-platform wind turbine activity that is beginning to hum along the Atlantic coast.

The solution is to float turbines on platforms tethered to the sea bed. Commercial versions of floating offshore wind turbines are just beginning to emerge on the market, but costs tend to run high. The high cost is partly because of the size of the floating platform required to stabilize a tall wind turbine.

Not to worry. During the Obama administration the Energy Department’s cutting edge ARPA-E funding office kickstarted an advanced floating wind turbine project aimed at cutting costs, and that initiative continued all during the Trump years.

GE is a lead participant in the multi-faceted initiative, and just last week the company unveiled its concept for a massive 12-megawatt offshore wind turbine floating on a teeny tiny platform.

More Offshore Wind For The US

If all goes according to plan, the new floating platform should be ready for its closeup right around the time that the Department of the Interior winds up the process of approving the newly designated Pacific coast Wind Energy Areas.

The Interior Department is aiming at 3 gigawatts’ worth of offshore wind turbines for the so-named Morro Bay 399 Area in Southern California, and another 1.6 gigawatts for the Humboldt Call Area at the northern end of the state, which is a little farther behind in the pipeline.

Speaking of pipelines, if you were wondering how all of this popped up so quickly during the freshly minted Biden administration, it didn’t. Plans for developing the Pacific coast for offshore wind were in the works all throughout the Trump administration. Halfway through the former President’s one term in office, California Governor Gavin Newsom was already dreaming about tens of thousands of new green jobs for his state, and leading wind energy developers were already jockeying for the pole position.

For that matter, right around the same time, the Department of the Interior globalized itself by hosting a multinational forum of offshore wind regulators and hooking up with The Netherlands in a collaborative wind energy venture.

Whether offshore or onshore, the US wind industry is on track to anchor deep decarbonization. Natural gas stakeholders should be especially nervous right around now, because power generation is just the beginning. Leading global corporations are already betting on wind power to foster the decarbonization of  other industries like steel making and ammonia by hooking up with green hydrogen production.

Keep an eye on Louisiana for the next development on that score. The gas-happy state was quick to hop on board another Trump-era initiative that aimed to identify likely opportunities for placing wind turbines in the Gulf of Mexico, where wind conditions are not optimal but other factors could lead to a fresh burst of economic activity.

If the former President can take credit for anything, killing off fossil energy jobs should be one of them. He blew a lot of hot air about saving coal jobs and boosting the oil and gas industries, but he failed to follow through. He stood by while the Deep State carried on its work of making every effort to ensure that the US can weather the climate crisis without falling into a catastrophic public health and economic crisis as well.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland gets the last word on that. “Today’s announcement reflects months of active engagement and dedication between partners who are committed to advancing a clean energy future,” she said. “The offshore wind industry has the potential to create tens of thousands of good-paying union jobs across the nation, while combating the negative effects of climate change.

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.

Image: Morro Bay offshore wind area courtesy of US Department of The Interior.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3294 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey