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California aims to score big in the race for offshore wind

It’s looking to floating turbines to ride the Pacific Ocean’s waves

Waters Off Block Island Host America’s First Offshore Wind Farm
A wind turbine generates electricity at the Block Island Wind Farm on July 7th, 2022, near Block Island, Rhode Island.
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

California has set a hella ambitious goal to build up its offshore wind industry. The Golden State is aiming to reach 25,000 megawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2045, about as much as all of Europe has today.

The target set by the California Energy Commission on Wednesday is the biggest commitment any state has made yet to develop wind farms off of their coasts. The goal is even more monumental considering the US’s fledgling offshore wind industry has really only gained a foothold on the East Coast.

So far, there are two small projects off the coasts of Rhode Island and Virginia capable of generating just 42 megawatts of electricity. The first commercial-scale wind farm, to be built off the coast of Massachusetts, just received federal approval from the Interior Department last year. The pipeline of new projects continues to grow mostly on the East Coast; Virginia regulators approved plans to build the US’s biggest wind farm yet last week.

The reason that the East Coast has so much of a head start comes down to geography. On the West Coast, ocean depths drop steeply relatively close to the shore compared to the East Coast. That makes it hard to affix turbines to the seafloor. Historically, turbines couldn’t really be installed in waters greater than 60 meters deep. To solve that problem, California is looking to new floating turbines that are still in development. Such technologies could unlock some 60 percent of the nation’s offshore wind resources that otherwise might have been out of reach.

Those turbines could help California overcome one of the stumbling blocks in its efforts to transition to 100 percent clean electricity by 2045. The state already generates more solar energy than any other. But it needs another power source to fill in after the sun sets. The California Energy Commission hopes offshore wind can step in to provide enough renewable energy through the evening.

Reaching 25,000 megawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2045 could power 25 million homes, the California Energy Commission says. It also set a shorter-term goal of developing up to 5,000 megawatts of capacity by 2030.

The Biden administration is setting up offshore wind to expand across nearly every coast along the continental US — from the Pacific Northwest and California to the Gulf of Mexico and the length of the East Coast. The goal is for turbines rising above the sea to generate 30,000 megawatts of clean electricity for the US by the end of the decade.