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Military seen gaining extra voice in Calif. offshore wind development

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Wind energy developers and environmental advocacy groups have expressed concerns that the U.S. military may have more influence over potential offshore wind leases as the federal government looks to expand the country's rapidly growing offshore wind industry to the West Coast.

Moreover, the U.S. wind sector is worried that the Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, will prematurely exclude areas for development due to potential conflicts with the military, fishing and marine vessel traffic, according to an analysis of more than 100 public comments submitted to BOEM as part of the Interior's request for information from companies interested in three potential wind energy areas off of central and northern California.

The Natural Resources Defense Council pointed out that the Interior's Oct. 19, 2018, call for information and nominations mentions that the Department of Defense, or DOD, is already reviewing additional information from offshore wind developers to see whether potential lease areas would interfere with DOD activities in the Morro Bay Call Area off central California. The group, along with six other environmental advocacy groups including the Sierra Club and National Audubon Society, warned this gives the DOD an unfair advantage over other stakeholders and cautioned that the department "should not be the de facto siting agency for offshore wind development in California."

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"By engaging in private negotiations with offshore wind developers to discover areas of potential compatibility with offshore wind development on the Central Coast, BOEM, DOD and industry become the sole parties to privileged and confidential information — a practice for offshore wind development that is contrary to the inclusive, science-based and stakeholder-driven process we urge BOEM to conduct," the groups said in a letter.

"When one stakeholder entity is engaged in private negotiations with BOEM and developers, environmental or other stakeholder considerations run the risk of becoming of relatively lesser importance," the letter continued. "Our concern is that rather than BOEM identifying and selecting an area with lower environmental sensitivities, the agency is endowing DoD with greater priority siting authority than that of other stakeholders."

The American Wind Energy Association, or AWEA, the domestic wind sector's biggest trade group and lobbying body, said precluding certain areas so early on prevents the industry from fully evaluating and understanding if a location can accommodate multiple uses without undermining a particular party. Without having project specifics, AWEA said it is hard to know if developing in a certain area will have any impact on marine navigation.

"Offshore wind energy, commercial and recreational vessel use, and recreational and commercial fishing can and will coexist harmoniously in offshore areas," AWEA said in a letter. "BOEM should establish a process for consistently evaluating coexisting uses for all offshore wind development. While AWEA believes that multiple uses are able to coexist, it is important that BOEM establish a clear process for evaluating and resolving any issues of competing uses."

Potential project developers also shared similar concerns. Equinor Wind US LLC President Christer af Geijerstam said a blanket approach for automatic exclusion of offshore wind development is "inappropriate and unnecessary." Rather than exclude potential lease sites from the start, Equinor suggested analyzing potential conflicts at later stages of the leasing process when parties have more information on the areas' uses, physical environment and other needs.

"There is simply no need to prejudge the facts or the outcome of stakeholder engagement," af Geijerstam said in a Jan. 28 letter.

Equinor is eager to invest in renewable energy projects, as af Geijerstam and company CEO Eldar Saetre told Reuters on March 14 while at the CERAWeek conference in Houston, and called on governments to encourage the development of floating offshore wind energy technology.

California is eyeing potential paths toward reaching its 100% zero-carbon energy mandate by 2045 after then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bil in September 2018. California Energy Commission member Karen Douglas and California Public Utilities Commission member Cliff Rechtschaffen said in a joint letter to BOEM that offshore wind projects could provide carbon-free electricity near coastal load sources while utilizing existing onshore infrastructure. Douglas and Rechtschaffen said the PUC's integrated resource planning modeling will start including offshore wind data in the 2021-2022 planning cycle to determine the most optimal infrastructure needed to meet the state's greenhouse gas reduction goals and energy needs, while the California ISO will need to evaluate offshore wind development through its electric transmission planning process.

The Interior's request for information was spurred by two unsolicited proposals to build the West Coast's first offshore wind project. EDP Renováveis SA's EDPR Offshore North America LLC partnered up with Redwood Coast Energy Authority, a Eureka, Calif.-based energy provider, and other clean energy companies to build the WindFloat project, which could have a capacity up to 150 MW, off Northern California. Private developer Trident Winds LLC and German utility EnBW Energie Baden-Württemberg AG created a joint venture called Castle Wind to build the Morro Bay Offshore Wind Project (Castle Wind Offshore), a 765-MW floating offshore wind project.