Newsom’s Disastrous Offshore Wind Strategy

Earlier this year, after the federal government leased 583 square miles of deep ocean waters off the coast of California for offshore wind farms, California Governor Newsom said “offshore wind energy has gone from a distant pipedream to a burgeoning reality.” But when it comes to “renewable energy,” it is difficult to imagine an energy project more impractical, more costly, more fraught with potential for disaster, or more certain to wreak environmental havoc.

When completed, these wind farms will deliver 4.5 gigawatts of “clean” electricity to the California grid. That may sound like a lot of electricity. It’s not.

To begin with, because even offshore wind only blows intermittently, the actual yield of these turbines will be around 40 percent, which equates to 1.8 gigawatts of baseload power. That represents 5 percent of California’s current electricity consumption. If California goes all electric, which the state legislature remains absolutely committed to achieving, it will represent at best 2 percent of the electricity the state is going to need to generate. Two percent. But what is it going to take to get the proposed 1.8 gigawatts off offshore wind energy?

The biggest wind turbines in the world can now produce 10 megawatts at full output. To generate this much electricity, these machines are 1,000 feet tall, which is nearly four times higher than the Statue of Liberty including its base. These towering monstrosities are intended to float in the Pacific Ocean, remaining upright through storms, tsunamis and earthquakes, remaining in a fixed position via cables stretching from the bottom of the floating tower to anchors in the seabed over 4,000 feet under water.

What could possibly go wrong? Along with the natural disruptions, what about the impact of these turbines on birds, whales, other avian and aquatic life, or on planes, or boats and ships? But understanding just how problematic building just one of these turbines is going to be is magnified by what ought to be simple and compelling math. Because to generate 1.8 net gigawatts – a mere 2 percent of the electricity California’s legislature aspires to generate to achieve their “net zero” objectives – it will be necessary to build and float 450 of these 10 megawatt turbines. Imagine the logistics.

How many ships will this take? How many submarines and divers? How many port facilities? How many new homes for the construction workers? What about the undersea power cables? What about the storage batteries needed to buffer 4.5 gigawatts of on again, off again electricity? What about the ongoing maintenance? What about the raw materials needed to build all these leviathans? What about the billions and billions of dollars that will flow into the pockets of the special interests behind this disaster of a project, paid by taxpayers and ratepayers?

It is understandable that the people running a state as wealthy as California, with a culture of pioneering innovation that goes back nearly two centuries, would be inspired to set an example to the world. But the fatal flaw in California’s renewable energy strategy is that other nations aren’t going to follow this example. For everyone on earth to consume half as much energy per capita as Americans do, global energy production needs to double. Because energy is the foundation of prosperity, this needs to happen fast, and it needs to be affordable.

What Californians ought to be doing is developing new energy infrastructure that is practical and cost-effective. For example, instead of decommissioning its natural gas power plants, the state could upgrade them to the most advanced technologies available. Current combined-cycle designs harvest waste heat from the natural-gas-fired turbine to produce steam to drive a second turbine; new designs replace steam with helium, greatly improving efficiency.

For that matter, of course, why aren’t Californians at the forefront of both small modular and large next-generation nuclear reactor development? Why isn’t there a nuclear power plant in California that not only generates emissions free gigawatts of electricity, but utilizes the nuclear waste to produce still more electricity, rendering the eventual waste stream far less hazardous and harvesting far more electricity from each unit of fuel input?

When it comes to transportation, why hasn’t California’s legislature made a priority of widening and upgrading its roads and freeways to accommodate high speed, self-driving vehicles? And why did California’s state legislature ban, starting in 2035, the sale of advanced hybrids? Why is an all electric vehicle, requiring a half-ton or more of battery payload, plus a steel chassis to support all the extra weight, the only option? Why are hybrid vehicles excluded, with their much smaller batteries that harvest energy otherwise wasted from braking and downhill momentum? How can California’s lawmakers begin to predict what new advances may arise in hybrid technology, wherein the emissions from new combustible fuels may become negligible?

These are questions that ought to be front and center in Sacramento. Instead, Gavin Newsom is prioritizing offshore wind farms at a stupefying financial and environmental cost. California, and America, can indeed set an example to the world, but only if it is an example the world is willing to follow. When it comes to energy infrastructure, that boring but nonnegotiable prerequisite for any prosperous civilization, California has yet to live up to its illustrious legacy or its undeniable potential.

A condensed version of this article originally appeared in City Journal.

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