Turbines and brine: Washington offshore wind proposals present complex threats, challenges

Slightly more than one year old, proposals to float wind turbines 40 miles from the shores of Grays Harbor are still infants on the timeline of offshore wind regulation.

Whether or not they grow to reach old age is to be determined.

To Alla Weinstein, the fate of those proposals has much to do with our own.

“We can’t afford not to use any of the renewable resources that are available to us,” Weinstein, CEO of Trident Winds, said in an interview. “It just kind of comes down to that simple statement. We have to tap into everything we can, because the consequences are not suitable for humans.”

Last April, Weinstein’s Trident Winds requested to lease nearly 300 square miles of ocean. Around that same time, a separate company, Hecate Energy, put in for an even larger area — 400 square miles — off the coast of Grays Harbor and Pacific counties. There, turbines would capture unobstructed wind in its most forceful, pure form, sending power — more than any other proposed offshore farm on the West Coast — to a state and nation charging toward ambitious energy goals.

But right now, as those proposals grind slowly through the gears of government committees and review teams, coastal communities are reckoning with the future of their saltwater backyards, and what it might mean for turbines to dot the oceanscape beyond the breaking waves.

A high-quality resource

Weinstein has for decades been a leader in clean energy, and especially in offshore wind. As CEO of her former company Principle Power — at the time she was also the president of the European Ocean Energy Association — she was one of the first to jump on board with floating wind turbines when the technology became available in the latter part of the 2000s.

In large part, that technology makes offshore wind possible on the West Coast, where such projects have yet to find a footing. Used in Europe and off the East Coast of the U.S., fixed foundations — pillars connecting to the seafloor — aren’t feasible for the steep, narrow continental shelf on this side of the continent.

Weinstein said she still doesn’t know exactly how many turbines her proposed farm, labeled Olympic Winds, will hold, as the site’s actual area could, and likely will be, different from the lease request. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests 50 to 100; the original proposal details turbines spaced about one mile apart, each generating 10 to 20 megawatts, with the entire farm pumping out 2,000 megawatts (or two gigawatts) total — enough to power 800,000 homes.

That would make it the largest wind farm in the state, and the largest proposal for offshore wind on the West Coast.

On average, the Bonneville Dam on the lower Columbia River generates 1,200 megawatts of electricity. The four lower Snake River dams average 1,000 megawatts, but can produce up to 3,800 during peak periods, according to a recent assessment.

With about 134 turbines, Hecate’s proposal, called Cascadia Wind Farm, would generate roughly the same amount of energy as Trident’s, according to the company’s original proposal. Hecate Energy did not respond to a request for comment.

Grays Harbor Public Utility District officials have been in communication with both development companies, but haven’t reached any formal agreements, said Ian Cope, spokesperson for the PUD. If the wind farms go up, the PUD could end up purchasing the power they generate, Cope said.

Trident Winds’ initial proposal cited Grays Harbor PUD stations near Ocean Shores and Westport as possible avenues for delivering electricity to shore, however, Cope said the PUD released a clarifying statement saying the wind farms would not plug in to PUD stations. He also said the projects may eventually “work around” current infrastructure.

Washington’s renewable energy center is mostly in the eastern part of the state, while the population center is in the west. Offshore wind would balance that scale, Weinstein said.

“One approach is you can build on the east and then you build transmission lines and ship it to the West,” Weinstein said. “Or, you can tap into the area where the demand is.”

Offshore wind is high-quality. Brian Polagye, a University of Washington engineering professor and marine renewables researcher, said offshore winds have higher average speeds and are less turbulent than onshore winds.

“All things being equal, an offshore turbine would produce more energy than an onshore turbine,” Polagye said in an email.

Those steady winds could lift Washington through a massive energy transition, although the way offshore turbines fit in with current state energy policy isn’t set.

The Clean Energy Transformation Act, signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee in 2019, commits the state to 100% greenhouse gas-free power by 2045. That means the state will need twice as much clean energy as it currently produces, according to this year’s energy report from the Department of Commerce.

“The scale and pace of the clean energy transition requires significant investment and use of all the policy tools available,” said Mike Faulk, a spokesperson for Inslee’s office, in an email to The Daily World. “Currently, offshore wind projects are not demonstrating to be cost competitive with other renewable energy sources, but that is something we will continue to evaluate, along with other non-emitting resources, in our state energy strategy.”

Inslee’s proposed climate budget for the next two years doesn’t reference offshore wind, with the office saying it’s currently working “to better understand potential impacts to our state.”

Intentions are more explicit on the federal level.

In March, for the first time ever, the Department of Energy released its Offshore Wind Energy Strategy. The Biden Administration wants to reach 30 gigawatts of wind power by 2030, enough to run 10 million homes. In February, federal agencies met at a summit to discuss how to reach the administration’s goal of reducing the price of offshore wind development by nearly three quarters in the next 15 years.

The Department of Energy is also launching a study on how to improve transmission to harness power from offshore wind, specifically to West Coast communities.

It’s all about the process

As new wind farms, like the ones off the coast of Grays Harbor, are proposed, each must navigate through the vetting process of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the lead federal agency in charge of offshore wind development in the U.S. That includes reviews according to the National Environmental Policy Act before and after a lease award, as well as site assessments, rounds of technical review and a lease auction, among other things.

Before all of those steps, according to BOEM spokesperson John Romero, federal law requires the agency to determine if there is competitive interest in the areas identified by project proposals.

BOEM has yet proposed any action to start that process for either of the requests off the coast of Washington, Romero said, although the waters outlined by each proposal show overlap between the two.

If BOEM does find a competitive interest, Romero said, the agency defines a new area, or areas, as potentially suitable for offshore wind, and companies can then submit requests based on those “call areas.”

That happened last year off the coast of Oregon, where BOEM suggested two areas totalling about 1,800 square miles. But those proposed areas drew pushback from advisory groups and fishing interests, including the Pacific Fishery Management Council, a congressionally-created policy advisory group. In an April 6 letter, the council requested BOEM rescind the Oregon call areas and restart their process, questioning methods used by BOEM to identify areas suitable for wind development as it relates to ocean depth, and suggesting the agency examine deeper waters as possible development areas.

The letter states the council “is not opposed to the development of offshore wind, generally” but has “concerns that BOEM’s decision making regarding areas for wind energy development are made prior to considering the needs of communities, fish populations, important habitats and impacts to the ecosystem,” the letter said.

The letter also pointed out potential conflicts with Department of Defense routes and port access.

Similar concerns arose about development off the coast of California in August of last year, before BOEM in December announced a $750 million lease sale among five wind companies there. Trident Winds was an initial pursuant to development in California but was not awarded a lease.

Larry Thevik, president of the Washington State Dungeness Crab Fishermen’s Association, said the offshore wind events in Oregon and California could foreshadow the process for, and have a “great impact” on, their neighbor to the north. He said the two Washington wind proposals, and Hecate’s in particular, are “in the heart of some of the most productive fishing areas off of the Washington Coast.”

“BOEM leases first and asks questions later, and they don’t have sufficient questions even then,” Thevik said.

Local checks

Along with displacement of fishing grounds, Thevik fears wind development could have a ripple effect on other parts of the California current ecosystem in the northeastern Pacific. He said there’s a need for more information about the “cumulative impacts of offshore wind development both socioeconomically, environmentally and specific to individual species that either we depend on or share ocean space with.”

On the East Coast, where offshore wind is live, some farms have overlapped with critical whale migration routes.

Identifying those data needs is one of the duties of the Washington Coast Marine Advisory Council (WCMAC), which advises the governor and state Legislature on ocean policy and planning issues. Thevik, who has more than four decades experience in the fishing industry, serves as the commercial fishing seat on the council and chairs a technical committee tasked with examining offshore wind.

Because Washington offshore wind is still in early consideration, Thevik said, the council has a chance to lay the groundwork for reviewing developments. In a January letter to Inslee, the council established guidelines for how it wants the state to engage with BOEM. Defining the process as “too rapid” in other Pacific states, WCMAC requested transparency from the bureau and more robust engagement with coastal communities to “​​convey the importance of avoiding these same pitfalls in Washington.”

The state’s Coastal Zone Management Act, for example, could provide a “hook” for the state to have a greater influence in BOEM’s decision-making process than in other states, Thevik said. Although the current lease requests are in federal waters, “any offshore wind project off of Washington’s coast would need to comply with applicable state laws and regulations,” according to Faulk of the governor’s office.

They’ll also have to comply with tribal treaty fishing rights, Faulk said, another one of Washington’s “unique challenges” for offshore wind. The Quinault Indian Nation’s treaty fishing grounds stretch south to the mouth of Grays Harbor.

The tribe is currently in the process of relocating two villages threatened by rising sea levels and severe weather caused by climate change.

“We support development of clean energy as a cornerstone of the fight against climate change. No one is more vulnerable to climate change than the Quinault Indian Nation,” QIN president Guy Capoeman said in a statement to The Daily World.

“We are open to consideration of responsible clean energy development but let’s make sure we aren’t working to solve one problem by creating another,” Capoeman said. “Improperly sited, offshore wind power development threatens the ability of both tribal and non-tribal fishermen to make a living and provide for their families.”

QIN previously explored an agreement with Grays Harbor Wind, a joint venture between Alla Weinstein’s Trident Winds and renewables company EnBW North America.

The proposal was for a 1,000 megawatt offshore wind farm in the tribe’s accustomed fishing grounds. After initial discussions, the Quinault Tribal Council decided to reject the agreement in November 2021 because of potential risk to fisheries.

Weinstein has collaborated with tribes since she started off in renewables. She’s also made an effort to work with fishing communities. While pursuing projects in California last year, Castle Winds (another Trident Winds joint venture) created a mutual benefits corporation with two local fishermen’s associations. And, in previous lease auctions, Weinstein encouraged BOEM to run auctions not only based on bid prices, but also how well companies supported local communities.

“This was the first time that BOEM conducted an auction in such a way that there is money that’s going to be flowing into local communities,” Weinstein said, adding that the Washington farm could be “quite a significant economic benefit to Grays Harbor.”

An auction for Washington is still years away — in California, it took six years after the proposal just to get to that point.

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or clayton.franke@thedailyworld.com.