Wind Farm

Floating wind turbines, like these at a Hywind wind farm off the coast of Scotland, could be a potential huge industry for the coasts of Southern Oregon and Northern California.

The potential of using wind as an alternative energy source is under review in Curry County.

Former Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury kicked off a panel discussion Saturday, Dec. 7, about an offshore wind energy proposal that could bring 4,330 sustainable operations and maintenance jobs, 13,620 construction jobs, and thousands of service jobs to the south coast.

“It is a remarkable opportunity for all of us,” Bradbury said.

The forum, organized by Curry County Commissioner Court Boice, was held at Southwest Oregon Community College in Brookings.

Factors such as technology, wind resource and market conditions point to the viability of the proposal, said officials.

Technology

Dennis Beetham, CEO of DB Western Inc., said he already had developed the engineering systems and found investors who are willing to create those jobs, which would consist of assembling and maintaining offshore floating wind turbines out of either Coos Bay or Humboldt Bay, and placing them off the Oregon and northern California coast.

The wind turbine parts would be shipped to the port, assembled and towed out to sea.

Because of the depth of the Pacific Ocean and the existence of earthquake faults, the turbines would need be placed on submerged floating barges. Beetham said DB Western could manufacture 300 megawatts of generating capacity within five years, after a 10-MW demonstration project is evaluated.

Precedent has already been set overseas, where 20,000 offshore wind turbines are operating off western Europe, compared to five in the U.S., on the East Coast on fixed, not floating, bases.

Resource

The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) has determined that a region that extends from Coos Bay to the north and Eureka to the south is a “superb” wind resource for offshore wind generation.

Wind speeds are measured at greater than 10 meters per second (m/s), or 22.4 miles per hour, for the region encompassing 100 miles in Oregon and 200 miles in northern California.

Offshore wind in Oregon has the capacity to produce 220 terrawatt-hours (TWh) per year for turbines placed out to 3,280-foot depths, and 790 TWh/year out to 9,000-foot depths.

California offshore wind has four times the potential of Oregon, according to Beetham.

The further offshore the turbines are placed, the less turbulence and friction affect the output, Beetham said. Offshore wind is stronger, more consistent and more abundant than onshore wind, said Bradbury.

Market

California passed legislation in 2018 (SB100) for electricity used in the state to be 100% carbon-free by the year 2045. Currently, California has achieved about 18% renewable energy production, compared to Oregon and Washington’s 50%.

California is the fifth-largest economy in the country and has a long way to go to achieve a goal of 100% renewable production. In fact, said Beetham, the state can achieve 100% because land-use regulations and costs prevent the build-out of onshore wind and solar resources.

California retail utility customers pay some of the highest prices per kilowatt hour (kWh) for electricity, at almost $0.19/kWh, compared to the U.S. average of $0.13/kWh and just under $0.09/kWh in Oregon.

California needs to buy carbon-free electricity to meet its goals, and already is paying a premium price for energy. Beetham said he believes California utilities would be willing to help pay for renewable resources at lower prices.

Fourteen companies in California are competing for offshore energy leases, according to Bradbury. A Coos Bay company, Principle Power, is engaged in the federal permitting process to install a 100-150 MW turbine 20 miles off the coast of Eureka.

The Challenges

Everything looks like a winning proposition, except for one significant detail — infrastructure. Beetham said the current grid infrastructure will not support offshore wind energy, then offered two solutions:

  • A new grid on land to receive transmission cables from each offshore wind system deployment.
  • A sub-sea, direct current (DC) cable that goes directly to San Francisco. The DC cable would be buried 10 feet under the sea floor and could be patched into for adding new wind farms.

A new land-based grid is unlikely to be a priority for Oregon, because the state has some of the lowest utility rates in the country. And the sub-sea DC cable would have a number of environmental hurdles, including migratory species such as salmon that are affected by EMF radiation.

Shannon Souza, 2019 engineer of the year and the principle and founder of SolCoast Energy, spoke at Saturday’s forum about the southern Oregon coast’s energy vulnerabilities.

She showed on a map that nearly 100% of the state’s energy is transmitted from Bonneville Power over transmission lines. Then, she pointed out the existence of an attractive market such as California, one that’s eager to buy energy, could affect the current low prices for energy in Oregon.

“Our existing transmission lines are insufficient to support any significant export of Oregon energy to California,” Souza said. “We’ve got like a jumper cable that goes from Bonneville Dams down to California.”

Planning for building infrastructure is a very long process, she said. But there is discussion in the Northwest about how to intertie Oregon to California.

Southwest Oregon consumes about 600 MW of electricity, which could be produced locally instead of being sourced entirely from Bonneville Power, she said.

Bill Henry, a graduate student at Portland State University, is researching these larger transmission issues. His research at PSU is focused on the potential for transmission facilities to serve the offshore wind energy industry.

Henry emphasized that offshore wind complements other renewable energy sources, and that the state should have a portfolio of hydro, solar and wind for diversification.

Offshore wind has the advantage of being able to support larger turbines than onshore, which cannot exceed 70 meter blades because of difficulties transporting anything larger over land.

According to Henry, the offshore wind manufacturer and developer ecosystem on the West Coast is dependent on the addressable market size and fire resiliency problems being experienced currently in California. Using high-voltage DC transmission for sections of the grid addresses the fire problems, because DC can be undergrounded more easily.

As California, Washington and Oregon move away from carbon-based energy portfolios because of legislation passed in all three states, coal-fired power plants will disappear from the current mix of energy, leaving a large hole in energy production.

For Henry, that makes the case for investors and legislators to consider a transmission line that goes from the wind energy production capability here, to the loads where the energy is needed in California and customers already are paying high prices.

He is mapping out the steps to accomplish the task, and advocating public involvement in the early stages to make it happen instead of waiting for people to become involved at what he called “the litigation stage.”

It’s not all grim news. “California does have a system to pay for these facilities in a coherent way,” Henry said.

Sam Schwarz, a renewable energy installer from Coos Bay, presented a sample resolution that he urges Coos and Curry counties to adopt. “Having unilateral support makes it much easier for the legislators and the PUC, or whoever is sitting in front of this request, when we say, ‘We want you to pay above-market costs (to get this going),’” Souza said.

Current governance structures require the PUC to choose lower costs for consumers, instead of developing a resilient infrastructure that would raise costs for customers.

Audience responses

Responses from the forum’s audience were positive about the potential, but also acknowledged the complexity and high costs associated with the project.

In answer to an audience question about transmission line costs and how that process used to be part of a public-private partnership when the existing grid was built, Beetham had to acknowledge that’s not the case here. Bonneville Power would be willing to put in transmission lines but not to cover the costs, he said.

“I don’t think it would be fair to tell the developer you’ve got to build our grid for us,” Beetham said. Without the infrastructure, the proposal can’t survive.

In answer to a question about environmental concerns, additional study is needed, according to Henry. Bentham pointed out that San Francisco did much of the research already when undersea DC cables were placed in San Francisco Bay and studies were conducted for green sturgeon and salmon, which are indicator species.

The audience comment that summarized the problem and drew applause came from Mark Heller, a retired wind energy consultant. “You’ve kind of hit the Achilles’ heel on this one,” he said. “Nothing is going to happen in this country until we have something that looks like the Marshall Plan that takes our entire energy system and redesigns it.”

The Marshall Plan was a post-World War II American initiative that gave more than $12 billion in economic assistance to help rebuild Western European economies.

Coastal Southern Oregon Climate Action Network (SOCAN) president Ed Patterson summed up the takeaway for most people attending the forum. “It’s hopeful … there are real solutions here.

“There’re some real political problems, but it’s very complex, and I think it’s too complex for us average people to get our hands around. We need to trust other people to make the right decisions, with our input about our concerns. The Marshall Plan was the best thing I heard today.”

Tera Whats?

Most people don’t think about the measurements of electricity other than paying the electric company each month for the kilowatt-hours they use. Presenters at the forum talked in terms of mega-, giga- and tera-watt hours.

Here’s a primer on electrical units of measure to help grasp the magnitude of the energy discussion:

A watt is the basic unit of power at a specific moment, such as a 15-watt LED lightbulb or a 1,000-watt microwave.

  • kilowatt (kW) = 1,000 watts
  • megawatt (MW) = 1,000 kilowatts
  • gigawatt (GW) = 1,000 megawatts
  • terawatt (TW) = 1,000 gigawatts

So, what happens when you add the word “hour” after the unit of measurement? If you run a 1,000-watt microwave for an hour, you will use one kilowatt-hour (kWh) of energy.

On the production side, a megawatt-hour (MWh) is the amount of electricity generated by a 1-MW production plant in an hour.

A typical coal-fired power plant is about 600 MW. The newest nuclear reactor to come online in the U.S., in 2016, has a capacity of just over 1 GW, which is 1,000 times bigger than a MW.

A terawatt (TW) is equal to one trillion watts, 1,000 times bigger than a GW. A terawatt-hour (TWh) is how much electricity would be produced if a 1-TW generator ran for one hour.

The current U.S. electrical consumption is equal to 4,100 TWh per year, or the equivalent of 833 nuclear power plants with a capacity of 1 GW.

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