Oregon’s high desert is getting crowded, so wind power advocates are once again looking to the sea.
At a conference last week in Portland, ocean energy advocates presented an update on the state of offshore wind power. Costs have dropped dramatically since the last failed attempt to harness the wind over Oregon’s Pacific waters, making an offshore, deep-water wind farm once again seem feasible.
A stretch of the Pacific Ocean off the coast between Humboldt County, California, and Coos Bay has some of the highest wind power generating potential in the country.
The area north of the California border looks particularly promising to green energy advocates because the region already has a functioning electric grid. But a past attempt to install five floating turbines off Coos Bay faced rising costs and opposition from the fishing industry, and was eventually moved to California when no one could be found to buy the high-priced power the facility planned to generate.
But one big thing has changed since then, according to Jason Busch, executive director of the Pacific Ocean Energy Trust and a speaker at the conference: The number of offshore wind farms across the globe has skyrocketed, and the cost of wind power has dropped 75%.
“These cost curves are really well documented,” said Busch, who expects prices to keep falling. By 2030, he expects costs to be comparable to those of coal power and natural gas. Even now, “government subsidies are no longer necessary,” he said.
Unlike the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific rests on a continental shelf and the water gets very deep very fast. So unlike the wind farms of the Atlantic, which are fairly close to shore and are installed by drilling deep into the ocean floor, this farm would be floating. Researchers say that means it would be less likely to harm ocean ecosystems.
That doesn’t mean wind power is a consequences-free panacea, Busch pointed out.
“There will be some impacts to fishing grounds, some good, some bad, and some unknown,” he said. “But at the end of the day, the issue is: some people can’t fish where they want to or have historically fished.”
Any offshore wind farm on this stretch of the Pacific will essentially act as a marine reserve, because commercial and recreational fishing will likely be limited in the area. That could mean that fishermen can’t access fishing grounds, but it could also increase fish abundance on the edge of the farm.
Researchers are still studying what impacts offshore wind farms have on animals like whales. And offshore wind energy operations will almost certainly have some impact on migratory shorebirds.
Unlike the wind farms on the East Coast, which are located near the shore and have turbines that are attached to the ocean floor, any wind farms off the coast of Oregon will be far out to sea, past Dungeness crabbing grounds. That means that they’ll have to be floating — with potentially fewer impacts on marine life on the ocean floor. They’ll also be harder for people to see from shore.
A meeting of the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is planned for Sept. 27 in Portland. The meeting will include engineers, public officials from coastal counties and representatives of companies that may want to develop wind energy off the coast.
Busch doesn’t expect any policy decisions to come out of the meeting. He said it’s more of a chance for different stakeholders to get up to speed on the state of the technology.
He expects there will be representatives from some major corporations in the room. “There’s a lot of interest,” Busch said.
It will be the first step — sort of a prestep, Busch said — toward developing a large-scale wind operation off the coast.
It’s a step Busch said the Northwest needs to take.
“Our options for energy are limited. There will be no new hydropower, no more coal, no more nuclear. Geothermal is struggling. Solar is great, onshore wind is great, but the best sites are limited,” he said. “Our options are offshore. We need to look at them very closely.”