Play it safe or go big? The California Energy Commission is faced with this question as it looks to set a goal at its Aug. 10 meeting for how much offshore wind energy our state can produce — and the pressure is on.
Now is not the time for incrementalism. The future of California’s energy supply and our ability to wean ourselves off fossil fuel-generated power could very well hinge on the commission’s decision.
Our climate and energy crisis demands that the commission get as much clean, renewable power into the electricity grid as soon as possible. That means setting an ambitious goal of 5 gigawatts by 2030 and 20 gigawatts by 2045 (20 gigawatts can power up to 6 million average US homes annually, 1.5 times more homes than the initially commission envisioned).
Such a goal is realistic. California’s bona fides as a global climate leader are unassailable:
• We surpassed by nearly threefold the 3-gigawatt goal set in 2005 by the Million Solar Roofs Initiative.
• We’ve sped past the 12% sales target for zero-emission vehicles we set for 2025 and, according to one analyst, are on track to have zero-emission vehicles make up 67.5% of all new car sales by that year. We’re well ahead of schedule in meeting our goal of a carbon-free electric grid by 2045.
Offshore wind power will help us meet an ambitious goal.
The Pacific region of the United States, excluding Alaska, has the technical potential to create more power from offshore wind than it used in 2019, and almost 90% of what it is projected to use in 2050, assuming our transportation buildings, systems and industries go electric. Offshore wind projects along California’s central and northern coast already have cleared several early regulatory hurdles.
Offshore wind facilities will create thousands of jobs. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that by 2050, 18,000 jobs will have been created by building 10 gigawatts of offshore wind power capacity. The University of Southern California’s Schwarzenegger Institute is even more bullish on offshore wind job creation, estimating 97,000 to 195,000 jobs by 2040.
The need for a greater supply of clean, renewable energy becomes more apparent every day. Our electric grid is overtaxed, and energy is in short supply. It’s getting hammered by a megadrought, sweltering heat waves and deadly wildfires that have consumed forests, reduced entire towns to ash, darkened our skies and choked our lungs. Blackouts are now a recurring threat.
In May, the energy initially commission set California’s goal for offshore wind energy generation at 3 gigawatts by 2030 and 10 to 15 gigawatts by 2045, with the potential to reach 20 gigawatts through technical advances between 2045 and 2050. Soon after, the commission began to receive hundreds of letters calling for a more ambitious goal of at least 5 gigawatts by 2030 and 20 gigawatts by 2045.
Since then, the commission has heard and reviewed detailed reports from scientists, engineers and energy developers who say not only is the more aggressive testimony goal achievable, but it can be surpassed. A report by the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley concluded that California could generate up to 50 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2045.
There are challenges to overcome before California offshore wind energy becomes a reality. Developers must mitigate potential effects on the fishing industry, recreation and tourism, and threats to marine habitat and species. Some in the fossil fuel industry are bankrolling “Astroturf” groups to oppose offshore wind. Such groups are created to appear to represent citizens’ views but instead are the work of corporate interests.
We can and will clear these hurdles, but first we must overcome the urge to play it safe.
Terry Tamminen, a former California Environmental Protection Agency secretary, is CEO of AltaSea, a public-private partnership dedicated to developing solutions for climate change, energy supply and a global food shortage. Distributed by CalMatters.org.