When the cash-strapped Spanish company Acciona Energy announced that it was scrapping its plans to develop a wind farm near Lompoc, it looked like any hopes for wind energy in Santa Barbara County were dead in the water. Now, it sounds like one day – albeit far off into the future – wind turbines could be floating on the water.
John Reed, a UCSB-trained engineer who returned to the South Coast five years ago to work for Clipper Windpower – the now-defunct Carpinteria-based manufacturer of wind turbines – has a vision that includes 103 6-megawatt turbines harvesting wind in the Santa Barbara Channel and providing for one third of District 19’s energy needs. But Reed can also do math.
The project, he calculates, will cost $3.7 billion. He shared that figure on an August afternoon with Gary Kravertz, a business consultant who provides free business mentoring through the organization, SCORE. The two were meeting at a State Street coffee shop with a couple other potential business partners. Upon hearing that number, Kravertz did not spit out his coffee or make any other detectable reactions. Instead, he calmly asked Reed to break down his ambitions into discrete steps. This Socratic approach led to the conclusion that Reed needs to fundraise for expenses like airplane tickets so he fundraise for a demonstration project.
However far Reed gets, there’s no denying that the Santa Barbara Channel is hands down one of the most ideal spots on the California coast for harvesting wind energy. Around the Channel Islands, wind continually blows at or well above the seven meters per second that makes a site harvest-worthy.
There is no template for offshore wind development on the West Coast of the United States, let alone in the channel, but unrelated to Reed, a group of UCSB graduate students, along with Santa Barbara-based Infinity Windpower and the Community Environmental Council, will spend the year studying the feasibility of farming wind in the Channel.
According to Luke Feinberg, a master’s student in the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, he and his peers working on the Calwind project have three goals: to conduct a stakeholder analysis, to outline the permitting pathway for obtaining permission to build wind turbines offshore, and to complete a GIS spatial analysis. The last refers to the fact that the nearshore area is shared by marine protected areas, shipping lines, fishermen, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, for starters. Nobody has yet mapped exactly how the area is divvied up, and where space for turbines could be carved out.
While “you can get stronger and more consistent wind offshore,” according to Megan Birney, who worked at the CEC when interviewed but has since left, “there are several barriers.” Along with the questions of where to run transmission lines, migratory bird patterns, fishing interests, and the military presence, the continental shelf on the Central Coast drops off so sharply and the water depth increases so quickly that it would be impractical to anchor turbines into the ocean floor. Any potential turbines would need to float.
A 2009 study published in the journal Renewable Energy concluded that between 52.8 and 64.9 gigawatts of power — several times over the California’s current total usage — could be generated from floating turbines off the California coast. A more practical estimate for the area, said Birney, is about 10 percent of the county’s usage according to a 2006 report.
Whether Santa Barbarans will ever see turbines pinwheeling on the horizon will depend on whether they want to. The very first step in the Calwind study is to take the temperature of area residents with a survey that just went live. It can be completed at surveymonkey.com/s/calwind.