Plummeting costs spur Oregon floating wind activity

As U.S. researchers predict dramatic falls in floating wind costs in Oregon, key stakeholders are tackling critical transmission and public consultation challenges.

A recent study of five potential floating wind sites off the coast of Oregon revealed some startling results.

According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the levelized cost of offshore wind projects could be as low as $53/MWh at a site near Coos Bay in the south, rising to $74/MWh for a site near Astoria in the north.

NREL assumed projects of capacity 600 MW brought online by 2032, and using 15 MW turbines, larger than any currently on the market. Principle Power recently became the first floating wind developer to connect 8 MW turbines at its WindFloat Atlantic (WFA) project in Portugal.

The U.S. Pacific coast is seen as a major future market for emerging floating wind technology, as water depths are too large to accommodate fixed-bottom wind farms. Several projects have been proposed in California and activity is now spreading north. Demand for renewables in Oregon is set to soar as utilities race to meet stringent state targets.

A previous floating wind project in Coos Bay, proposed by Principle Power in 2014, failed because it was too costly. Since then, rising turbine capacities, installation learnings, and economies of scale have sliced offshore wind costs.

The Coos Bay site has an average wind speed of 9.8 metres per second (m/s), the highest in the study, making it the favourite for many developers.

“I'd say that (Coos Bay) is the preferred site," Jason Busch, Executive Director at Pacific Ocean Energy Trust (POET), a non-profit think tank which promotes responsible marine development, told New Energy Update.

"There’s high amount of wind resource which could accommodate tens of gigawatts of the highest quality power," he said.

“Offshore floating wind is ready for primetime," Jim Lanard, co-founder of Magellan Wind, a developer of offshore projects in California, said.

"That’s the approach we’re taking in California and now we’re moving in to Oregon because of a lot of interest we’re seeing in Coos Bay."

A number of challenges in Oregon must yet be overcome, experts warned.

Coastal transmission infrastructure would need to be upgraded and a wide range of stakeholders must be consulted before sites are allocated.

New connections

Oregon's Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), implemented in 2016, requires investor-owned utilities PacifiCorp and Portland Generation Electric (PGE) to supply 50% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2040. PacifiCorp and PGE supply around two thirds of Oregon's electricity demand and smaller utilities must meet also meet RPS targets, set at lower levels.

Hydroelectric plants supplied 58% of Oregon's utility-scale power generation in 2018 while gas-fired generation supplied around 25%, onshore wind 12% and a small portion came from coal-fired plants, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Most of the hydroelectric fleet does not qualify for the RPS, requiring significant wind and solar buildout in the coming years.

                             PGE's power supply mix in 2019

Source: Portland General Electric (PGE)

The coastline between Humboldt, in Northern California, and Coos Bay, in Southern Oregon, is the most favourable for development as other high wind areas could conflict with U.S. Navy operations, Busch said.

This stretch also benefits from low population levels and relatively few fishing ports, reducing the risk of local opposition, he said.

Power transmission is a key challenge for development, Busch said. Significant investment would be required in shoreside infrastructure and subsea cabling. Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) owns the largest share of grid infrastructure, with smaller shares held by PacifiCorp and local public utilities.

                  Distance from shore of Oregon study sites

Source: NREL's Oregon Offshore Wind Site Feasibility and Cost Study, October 2019. 

According to Busch, development near the California-Oregon border would require a "backbone" interstate transmission line to transmit power to the large load centers.

If developers are instead required to build individual radial transmission lines, this would incentivize projects closer to the shore, increasing potential conflict with fishing and traffic routes, Busch said.

"The only way that area gets developed is a backbone line or lines that are connected in both California and Oregon to ensure redundancy and to facilitate a more efficient grid and regional energy markets," he said.

Plans underway

As market interest builds, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is working with Oregon authorities to initiate a planning process for potential siting opportunities.

The BOEM must perform comprehensive stakeholder engagement and analysis before it identifies any potential sites, warned Necy Sumait, head of the BOEM’s Pacific Renewable Energy Section.

Stakeholders include an intergovernmental task force of federal, state and native-American-tribe officials, the Department of Defense, representatives from the commercial fishing industry and environmental groups.

Developers like Magellan are also working with officials and other stakeholders to build a comprehensive offshore development framework.

While a tender could be launched in Oregon as soon as 2022, it will take several years before the first facility is online, Lanard said.

"Once there’s an auction, it’s five to seven years before a project is ready to start providing electricity,” he said.

Reporting by Paul Day

Editing by Robin Sayles