Off-shore wind farm leads to a tempest in Morro Bay

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One of California's first off-shore wind farms will be built off the coast of Morro Bay. But a recent lease auction ignored years of collaboration between the community and its preferred bidder. Photo by Shutterstock.

Opinion column by Joe Mathews:

Do we care if climate projects benefit the communities they impact?

That question is posed by the first-ever auction for leases to create off-shore wind farms on the West Coast. The auction awarded rights to build vast flotillas of wind turbines 20 miles off the coasts of San Luis Obispo and Humboldt Counties.

This was supposed to be a clarifying moment in California’s commitment to wind energy. The Golden State, for all its supposed climate leadership, has lagged the East Coast in developing off-shore wind power. This is partly because of all the local opposition here — from fishing industries, Indigenous communities, and local stakeholders — to  changes anywhere near our beloved shoreline.

In response, the rules of the federal government’s lease auction considered not just the amount companies bid, but whether bidders engaged with local communities. Under the formula, companies who reached benefits agreements with a community could earn credits giving them an edge in the auction.

One bidding company did exactly that.

But was it worth the effort?

This head-scratching story is centered on Morro Bay. When off-shore wind development became a public issue there nearly a decade ago, citizens expressed concerns about the impacts of turbines on birds, fisheries, or, even at a distance of 20 miles from land, the natural beauty of the coast.

But in 2015, Castle Wind LLC — a joint venture between Washington state-based Trident Winds and the subsidiary of a Germany utility — started a dialogue with residents and stakeholders.

Castle Wind, following local leaders’ advice, talked first with fishermen, whose struggles are well-known.

After two-plus years of talks, Castle Wind and two fishermen’s associations forged a novel mutual benefits agreement. The 2018 agreement offered three main benefits for fishermen: a new fund for infrastructure improvements for the commercial fishing industry, new training and employment opportunities, and a process for the local fishing industry to help shape wind project design.

With the fishermen on board, the Morro Bay City Council subsequently approved its own community benefits agreement with Castle Wind. The company agreed to hire local residents, to create internships and training programs at local schools and universities, to establish a maintenance and monitoring facility in the Morro Bay harbor, and to promote local businesses.

Both agreements proved popular. Indeed, last year, Castle Wind and the fishermen deepened their partnership by creating a “mutual benefits corporation” as a legal vehicle for carrying out future joint projects.

But when the auction was held in December, the benefits agreements and the corporation didn’t make any difference. Castle Wind, even with credits, did not win a single lease. Instead, the leases in areas off San Luis Obispo County went to three higher bidders — each of whom bid over $100 million, among them Equinor, a Norwegian state-owned oil company. None had reached agreements with Morro Bay locals, as Castle Wind had.

The auction has raised many questions about the future of climate and community. Federal officials, Castle Wind, and other bidders have been tight-lipped about the result. Locally, city officials and fishermen’s groups have expressed disappointment, and noted pointedly that the winning bidders had not forged agreements and did not have their support.

In Morro Bay, there is still considerable hope that winning bidders will approach the fishermen, the city, and other communities to execute agreements and make partnerships based on those forged with Castle Wind. That hope is based on the widespread view that Castle Wind’s agreements were thoughtful and well-drafted, and stood to benefit everyone — from the company, which wanted the lease, to the city and its fishermen, who sought to create new job and development opportunities for the city.

That hope also reflects political reality. California needs clean energy, but constructing wind farms will take years — and is unlikely to succeed if local communities and their state and federal representatives stand in the way.

Yes, talking takes time, and climate change is an emergency. But in California, if you want to build new projects to save the climate or anything else, you need the wind, and local communities, at your back.  

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.




Chery Glaser


Darrell Satzman