In the early 20th century, the U.S. Census Bureau declared Humboldt County, California—now famous for its redwoods—the “principal center” of the state’s lumber industry. In 1900, the product accounted for nearly 60 percent of the region’s exports.
But now, though lumber yards and wood suppliers still line Humboldt Bay, the industry is a shadow of its former self.
“You look at old photographs of Humboldt Bay from back then and there’s mills everywhere, pulp mills and ships and docks,” said Matthew Marshall, executive director of the Redwood Coast Energy Authority. “As that retracted there’s a lot of available land and waterfront …. So, there’s a big opportunity.”
The Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA)—a power organization formed by the County of Humboldt and Northern Californian cities such as Trinidad and Eureka—has been working for years to prepare for that opportunity. In 2018, RCEA submitted an unsolicited application to the U.S. Department of the Interior in hopes of building wind energy in waters just west of Humboldt Bay.
That bid helped gain the attention of offshore wind players across the world. Many drew up plans to build off California’s coast. The U.S. government floated several places where wind projects could work. So far, progress in the state has been halting. Meanwhile, the East Coast built pilot projects, crafted designs for offshore wind hubs, and started to build out its ports.
California—while a beacon when it comes to climate policies—has not been a trailblazer in offshore wind. Technological challenges related to its deep Pacific waters and the political struggles that have ensnared many types of energy projects have kept the Golden State from a possibly golden opportunity.
But the potential for wind off the West Coast has garnered renewed interest from the Biden administration, which wants to significantly expand clean energy across the nation in a bid to stem climate change. Ports along the West Coast, and particularly the Port of Humboldt, about 270 miles north of San Francisco, are jockeying to capture the attention of an industry that’s anticipating significant growth in coming years.
Port infrastructure is “foundationally important” to the offshore wind industry, said Arne Jacobson, who directs Humboldt State University’s Schatz Energy Research Center. Huge, heavy turbines must be manufactured and constructed on land before they’re taken out to sea. To attract the industry, Humboldt needs to tear out decades-old terminals that supported the lumber industry and put in revamped infrastructure that can support wind turbines as tall as the Golden Gate Bridge.
Until recently, the state’s technological challenges had been matched with political ones. But in September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that compels state officials to devise a plan for offshore wind. In October, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said the federal government aims to hold seven offshore wind lease sales by 2025, with those in California slated for next year.
Industry supporters in Humboldt, and developers interested in the region, have been waiting for this type of momentum.
After the 2018 bid from RCEA, Larry Oetker, head of the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District, said a parade of “the who’s who of the offshore wind industry” began turning up to his office in Humboldt County, ready to sell him. The agency is responsible for making sure Humboldt has the infrastructure to support the industry.
It took about a year for that message, relayed to Oetker by representatives from the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the California Energy Commission, and numerous wind companies, to sink in.
Since then, the agency has laid out a two-phase plan to transform the port and replace six acres of decaying wood pilings with a terminal that can support modern energy infrastructure. Oetker and his small team of just 11 people consulted with development staff of multinational offshore wind giants like Equinor and Ørsted and with port officials in the Netherlands, Belgium and New York to determine the path forward.
Most essential to the plan is a “heavy-lift terminal,” basically a huge dock that can support the weight and size of different wind turbine components, including blades longer than a football field and towers nearly as tall as the Washington Monument. Because California’s deep waters require floating offshore wind technologies, those gigantic structures will then get towed out to sea.
Construction out in the ocean also requires a nearby operations port to support smaller vessels associated with projects, said Shane Phillips, a civil engineer who specializes in coastal planning at infrastructure consulting firm Moffatt & Nichol. If manufacturing comes to Humboldt—as the Harbor District hopes—the area would need a fabrication facility that can access the dock where turbines are assembled.
“Is it a network of ports? Or is it more done onsite? Those are things that still need to get worked out in the coming years,” said Phillips, who worked on a study on West Coast offshore wind infrastructure for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM).
The Port of Humboldt already enjoys many of the qualities that make it a promising contender for the West’s offshore wind hub.
The port isn’t shadowed by a bridge and has waters deep enough to support floating turbines. Its location is also hard to beat; Humboldt Bay lies just about two dozen miles inland from one of two ocean “call areas” the federal government designated for development off the California coast. And the port offers access to Washington and Oregon and the parts of California that lie to its south.
BOEM, an agency within the Interior Department that designates where developers can build offshore energy projects, hasn’t approved any such areas in Southern California. But bustling ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach are already overwhelmed with international shipping, meaning they’re less likely to have the capacity to support offshore wind, said Marshall with RCEA.
Humboldt Bay, on the other hand, is “ready for something new,” he said.
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Not everyone agrees, of course. Fishing groups have raised concerns about how installations may impact the industry, while some environmentalists worry about the potential impact to ocean habitat for creatures like marine mammals and seabirds.
“We understand that [wind is] pivotal and important in avoiding consequences of climate change,” said Delia Bense-Kang, a Humboldt County resident who grew up in the region and now coordinates campaigns for an ocean protection nonprofit called the Surfrider Foundation. “We want this to be done well and to not cause more damage.”
Other community members have expressed doubts about a rush of outside investment with little local benefit—a dynamic of extraction that’s haunted Humboldt since its lumber days. But Jacobson said there is interest in the job potential, and involvement from a local player like RCEA helps assuage some concerns.
To help foot the bill for possible changes on the coast, which Oetker said could cost $250 to $300 million, the Port of Humboldt has received $11.6 million from the state. The Harbor District also recently applied for a $56 million grant from the federal government.
The money, if awarded, would come right on time. The Biden administration recently slated September 2022 as its goal for the first lease sale in California waters. Those leases are a key aspect of the Biden administration’s ambitions to reach 100 percent clean electricity in the coming decades, with at least 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030.