Offshore Wind Energy Development May Come to Oregon

Offshore wind turbines
Offshore wind turbines.\Photo courtesy of NOAA.

The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has Oregon in its sights for development of wind energy turbines in federal waters off our shores.  In conjunction with the state’s Department of Land Conservation and Development, BOEM planners have been assessing Oregon’s wind energy potential.  Now, BOEM appears to be on the verge of identifying areas open for leasing, known as “call areas,” to begin the development process.

This doesn’t mean that wind energy turbines will inevitably appear in these areas.  Companies leasing call areas will conduct further studies and, if satisfied that sufficient wind energy can be produced there, then produce proposals for specific sites for consideration by BOEM.  There will be environmental studies of these proposals, and the public will have a chance to weigh in at that point.  Still, there is considerable momentum driving us toward a new seascape featuring hundreds of massive wind turbines.

At this point it is uncertain how vast the impact could be. The Oregon Department of Energy (DOE) has developed a Floating Wind Energy Study which assesses the potential benefits and impacts to Oregon. (“Floating” refers to the fact that the waters where the turbines would be located are too deep to anchor them on the bottom; rather, the turbines will be on floating platforms tethered to the seafloor.)  In September, DOE will report its results to the Oregon legislature, which has set a goal of 3 gigawatts to be produced off Oregon’s shore. There are serious questions about whether the existing transmission infrastructure could handle this much power.  Yet some industry promoters are talking about developing capacity for as much as 20 gigawatts, which would turn the ocean into a major industrial zone.

Those who love Oregon’s coast and ocean will have mixed feelings about the situation.  Wind is a renewable energy source, which can play a role in weaning society from fossil fuels and abating global warming.  Climate change is already affecting the ocean and marine species in many ways, and will increasingly harm birds, marine mammals, and other wildlife.

On the other hand, an ocean dotted with huge turbines could have as-yet-unknown but potentially major impacts to the ocean and its inhabitants.  Wind turbines have already been developed that stand 853 feet tall, with a blade sweep of 722 feet; technology is under development that would allow for turbines 1,500 feet in height.  (The Statue of Liberty is 305 feet tall.)  The potential to affect the migratory pathways of birds and marine mammals, the disturbance to bottom habitats, the possible effects of powerful electrical currents being conducted through the water, the likely interference with fisheries, all pose important questions.  Oregon Shores joined a host of conservation groups in sending comments to BOEM in December, asking for careful consideration of these concerns.

Another set of worrisome questions involve what happens onshore.  Cable lines crossing the intertidal and beach and connecting to switching stations and transmission lines on land could create impacts.  Perhaps a greater concern is what might take place in the Coos Bay estuary.  (The offshore areas that apparently have the greatest potential for wind energy lie off southern Oregon and far northern California. Also, a recent industry study indicated that the Port of Coos Bay was the only one in Oregon that could handle the industrial side of wind energy.)  Development of floating wind will involve assembly of these massive industrial structures, transporting them offshore, and ongoing maintenance and repair.  The dredging and industrial activity this would require could degrade estuarine ecosystems as much as would have the now-abandoned Jordan Cove LNG facility we fought so hard to block.

Once BOEM announces the call areas, there will be a 30-day period during which the public will be able to comment.  Oregon Shores will be working with other conservation groups to demand independent scientific review; serious consideration given to the value of the marine and estuarine resources that could be impacted; a coastwide framework for considering cumulative impacts; careful monitoring; and mitigation for the impacts of any offshore wind development that does occur.  When the time comes, we will do our best to assist members and other citizens in making their voices heard on these issues.