RWE’s Eaton said the company had held off on engaging with groups like fishing fleets and tribes in California until it had won a lease at auction. “We’re prepared to begin those dialogues very soon,” said Eaton.

Wind’s role in reducing carbon emissions

Researchers at Princeton University modeled a variety of pathways that could see the U.S. reach net carbon neutrality by 2050, meaning the nation would stop being a net climate polluter by that point. Without offshore wind, it would technically be possible to reach ‘net zero’ by 2050, but that would be “more expensive than tapping into the abundant strong wind potential that’s right off our shores,” said Jesse Jenkins, a member of Princeton’s Net Zero America project.

“The best wind potential in the country, if not the world, is off the Northern California and Southern Oregon coast,” Jenkins said. “It’s an important resource that the region is looking to tap into.”

The Net Zero America project didn’t consider potential wave energy generation because it isn’t yet commercially viable. But Jenkins said the heavy chop of the Pacific Ocean could eventually be used to produce this additional form of clean ocean energy — perhaps operating off the same floating platforms as wind turbines.

“There are several companies working to develop wave energy,” Jenkins said. “It’s very difficult to build things that can survive the pummeling of West Coast waves.”

A cornerstone of ambitious plans

State renewable energy mandates in California and elsewhere have for years spurred planning of offshore wind farming, with the goal of replacing power plants that generate the pollution responsible for climate change. More recently the federal government under President Joe Biden has been working to open additional offshore waters for potential leases and to eliminate development bottlenecks imposed by the pro-fossil fuel Trump administration.

California air regulators have charted an ambitious path to dramatically reducing planet-warming emissions over the next two decades, which Gov. Gavin Newsom has said will “spur an economic transformation akin to the industrial revolution” and create a “pollution-free future.”

To hit clean energy targets that are among the most ambitious in the world, California will have to foster the construction of renewable generating capacity faster than ever before. The state is relying on robust offshore wind development in this plan. It wants to see 5 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity installed by 2030, which would be roughly equivalent to the output of 8 or 10 natural gas power plants. The goal quadruples by 2045.

California is working to overcome workforce and technological barriers that could hinder the new industry, and it’s banking on rapid global innovation to push wind farms into deeper waters.

“Floating platforms are going through a period of great innovation,” said Stephanie McClellan, executive director of the recently formed nonprofit Turn Forward, which aims to accelerate the buildout of offshore wind farms nationally. Gas-and-oil drillers already use floating turbines, and some of those designs are being adapted for wind farming.

“We’re starting to see a variety of different innovations, a number of different designs,” McClellan said. “We’ll start to see which of these are going to rise to the top in terms of usage.”

While floating technology is essential for building wind turbines along California’s coast, it could turn out to be superior to the fixed-tower turbines that currently dominate the industry.

That’s because building further offshore, where floating technology would be required even along the East Coast and along other shallower coastlines, reaches stronger winds while reducing potential conflicts with fishing fleets. It can also ease concerns of residents and tourism operators about impacts of wind farms on ocean views. “There’s higher wind speeds in deeper waters,” said McLellan.

Some environmental risks, many benefits

Assessing the likely environmental impacts of floating wind generation is difficult “because there’s not an awful lot of it in the world,” said Andrea Copping, an oceanographer at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. After spending a decade investigating likely impacts, she said “the risks are reasonably small and manageable.”

Because the turbines will be so far out to sea, there would be fewer threats of turbine blades striking land-based birds and bats, Copping said. Tethering platforms to the seafloor should also cause fewer harms than the installation of towers, which require extensive pile driving that can harm whales and other wildlife by creating underwater booms.

“The more platforms you put out there, you increase the risk incrementally with each one,” Copping said. “If I have concerns at all, it’s probably looking 30 or 40 years in the future with many, many things out there.”

Impacts aside, some environmentalists are leery at the presence of fossil fuel companies in the growing offshore wind sector.

This aerial photograph taken on June 16, 2022, shows a wind turbine farm in the Baltic Sea, northeast of Rugen Island in Germany.

Shell is a joint-venture partner on a wind farm planned off the coast of New Jersey, which is leading efforts on the East Coast to attract offshore wind farm manufacturing and other facilities to its shores. Other gas and oil giants like BP registered to bid at the auction, which closed on Dec. 7, though none emerged as winners.

Jeff Tittel, a veteran New Jersey environmentalist and former president of the state’s Sierra Club chapter, points out that many of the wind developers setting up operations in the U.S. retain extensive fossil fuel operations, which he says erodes trust. RWE, for example, operates natural gas-fired power plants across Western Europe. Equinor traces its roots back 50 years when it was founded as the Norwegian State Oil Company, Statoil, and it remains a fossil fuel giant.

“I kind of get it, that energy companies want to diversify, like they used to be coal, and then they went into oil and then they went into wind and solar,” Tittel said. “Does that mean that they’re willing to go to one hundred percent renewable and put their other businesses out of business? That’s why I say there’s a trust issue.”

For unions, working for fossil fuel companies is nothing new. What’s new for them are vast workforce opportunities in a fast-emerging industry — one that’s slowing the destruction of a livable climate, instead of contributing to it.

“This is a climate change issue,” said Hunerlach, the union official in Humboldt County. “We’re really excited to be able to be part of this historic new industry.”