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Offshore wind to catapult forward California’s clean energy plans
With 201 GW potential, offshore wind can deliver a major portion of the state’s 2045 net zero power system target
  • California’s onshore wind market is underperforming
  • Import dependency means the state is still burning coal by proxy
  • Offshore wind could power California more than two times over

Known as the Golden State, California is surging ahead with the installation of solar power, but its wind market has stalled. Onshore wind capacity in the state totalled just 6,281 MW at the end of 2021, with only 1,314 MW added since 2012.

The lack of onshore wind makes the state’s ambitious climate goals hard to reach. California, which has a GDP larger than India, is targeting a net zero power system by 2045, along with a huge expansion in electric vehicles, which are expected to make up 35% of new sales by 2026 and 100% by 2035. The state typically accounts for more than one in ten new cars sold in the US.

The dearth of new onshore wind farms also doesn’t help with the state’s high electricity costs. Of US states, California had the sixth highest retail electricity prices in 2020, which at 18.00 cts/kWh were some way above the US average of 10.58 cts/kWh.

Extreme weather is stressing Californian electricity provision

California’s electricity system has been stressed this year and last by drought and high temperatures, which simultaneously increase demand for air conditioning and reduce generation from the state’s more than 14 GW of hydropower plant. In September, California’s electrical grid operator was forced to issue a number of warnings of the risk of rolling black outs.

California's renewable energy generation

net in MWh, Source: California Electricity Commission; *Utility-scale solar only

Last year, hydro generation in the state dropped to its second lowest level since 1983 and a lack of rainfall this year has seen reservoir levels fall further, creating a gap not just in power supply, but also the amount of clean energy generated. Grid supplied renewable energy generation actually fell in 2020 and 2021, although this does not include substantial residential and commercial self-generation from solar power.

Import dependence

California imports about 30% of its electricity from other states, leaving its clean power plans and system reliability dependent in part on its neighbours. Reliability cannot always be guaranteed, as seen last August when a wildfire – another consequence of high temperatures — knocked out 4 GW of transmission lines bringing power from Oregon.

The need for imported electricity meant that while California used only a minimal amount of coal-fired generation itself, it imported close to 8 TWh last year from other states, about 3% of its total consumption.

Natural gas still makes up the largest share of in-state generation at just over 50%, as well as about 9% of imports. The share of gas and coal in imported generation may be higher or lower as the exact origin of some of the imports are not specified.

Nuclear also plays a limited role, but one more likely to decline than grow. California has had a moratorium on nuclear newbuilding since 1976. The last operating facility in the state, at Diablo Canyon, received a five-year life extension in September, allowing it to operate until 2030.

To ensure a net zero carbon electricity system by 2045, California has not only to address its own use of fossil fuels, but its dependence on power imports. And it has to do so while ensuring system reliability in the midst of increasingly extreme weather conditions.

Offshore wind offers huge potential

The onshore wind market is unlikely to return to necessary levels of growth until attitudes change regarding the land use restrictions which hamper the development of new projects. However, offshore wind offers substantial promise of bulk electricity to help California achieve its zero carbon electricity target.

Its development would complement the heady deployment rates needed for other clean technologies, such as onshore wind, solar power and electricity storage, not just in California, but across the US West.

The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that California’s extensive coastline offers a technical resource potential of 201 GW, enough to supply the state’s entire electricity needs more than twice over. The drawbacks are that California is starting from near scratch when it comes to offshore wind and, owing to deep Pacific Ocean waters, almost all the potential capacity needs to be developed as floating offshore wind, rather than traditional fixed-base installations.

Nonetheless, floating wind farms are increasingly a proved concept. The 30 MW Hywind floating wind farm has been operating off Scotland since 2017, and the number of different floating offshore wind concepts ready for deployment has proliferated since then.

Moreover, California has shown its willingness to back offshore wind, setting targets of 2-5 GW by 2030 and 25 GW by 2045, which, if realised, would have an enormous impact on its net zero electricity goals.

The potential is primarily located in three areas: Humboldt, Morro Bay and Diablo Canyon. The first is somewhat isolated from the main parts of the California electricity grid, while the latter two would need less onshore transmission investment.

The California Energy Commission (CEC) is currently preparing a number of policies which will form a strategic plan for offshore wind development. This is scheduled for delivery on or before June 30, 2023. The plan needs to identify suitable space for the wind farms and suitable waterfront facilities, as well as assess the necessary transmission investments and upgrades required onshore. It also requires a permitting roadmap with timeframes and milestones for the sector’s development.

An offshore wind procurement target would create the clarity and certainty for supply chain investments needed to jumpstart the industry.

State action is being pursued in cooperation with the federal government, which also wants to go large on offshore wind. In October, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management issued a final sale notice for lease areas hosting 3 GW of capacity in the Morro Bay area and 1.5 GW in the Humboldt area. Each developer is limited to one bid per area. The auction date for five lease areas has been set for December 6.

Washington has also set a goal of 15 GW of floating offshore wind capacity by 2035, providing a strong signal that commercial scale offshore wind is a priority for meeting national and state clean energy goals.

With a date now set for its first offshore auction, California will set off on its offshore wind adventure, adding a major new resource to its armoury of renewable energy technologies.

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