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A to scale drawing of a wind turbine under construction in a possible temporary location as it might look from Woodley Island. Compilation by Zachary Alva and Maia Cheli and courtesy of Schatz Energy Lab

Schatz Lab researches local wind energy opportunities

Humboldt has a wealth of wind energy resources, but what will it take to access them?

On a clear night someday in the future, you might look out across the ocean from Trinidad or Clam Beach and see small points of light way out in the distance. And the source for those points of light could be supplying all your electricity.

The Schatz Energy Research Lab is an affiliate of HSU’s Environmental Resources Engineering program which seeks to study and educate the public about clean energy. They are in the process of investigating a possible offshore wind energy project.

“We have the best wind resource in the United States,” said Maia Cheli, the communications and outreach manager for the Schatz Energy Research Lab.

A possible wind energy project could have wide reaching ramifications for both Humboldt County and California as a whole.

“There are so many reasons to support the development of clean, renewable energy: so that we can breathe healthy air, drink clean water, restore ecosystems, and slow climate change,” Cheli said. “But our critical energy questions don’t stop at how we generate energy – they also include who has access to electricity, how reliable that electricity is, how much it costs, and how well it supports communities. Bringing these outlooks together is the only way for us to build responsible, equitable energy systems.”

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management designated a region 20-30 miles off Humboldt Bay a possible site for an offshore wind farm. The farm would look like a number of floating wind turbines anchored with mooring lines. These turbines would convert wind energy to electrical energy.

“You have the tower, you have the nacelle, and you have the blades, and so the wind blows on the blades and the blades are converting that in through the generator into electrical energy which then passes back down through the tower and connects in with some kind of a cabling system,” Cheli said.

A possible project couldn’t just be a set of wind turbines, it would have to include upgrades to Humboldt’s current infrastructure, from our marine ports to current transmission capabilities.

A wind farm that would produce enough energy to be cost effective would produce more energy than we could use, so it would have to be exported out of the area.

“What we know of the system is that whether we develop medium or large-scale generation, it will require significant upgrades to the local transmission system,” said Marco Rios, the transmission system planning manager at PG&E. “And that really is because the current grid in this region was not designed to export generation outside of the area.”

There are more variables like the possible environmental impact of the construction, regular function, and maintenance of the wind turbines.

The data needed to predict environmental impacts of a wind farm doesn’t exist in full yet, and that’s what the Schatz Lab is working on.

“There’s not a lot of people that far offshore sitting there and counting seabirds all the time, so we’re working on that right now with the seabird 3D study,” Cheli said.

But those possible consequences have to be balanced with the consequences of a failure to reach emissions goals.

Garry George, the clean energy director at the National Audubon Society, spoke about the possible impact on birds at the offshore wind energy webinar.

“Our science team revealed in a study released last year that three degrees of warming will likely drive 389 species of North American birds to extinction because they’ll lose their wintering and breeding territories due to climate change,” George said. “So it is exciting to have a new resource, a new technology to add to our quiver of climate arrows here in California, like offshore wind, to get us to 100% clean and net zero emissions. This is critical for birds and it’s critical for people.”

A large-scale project would also have larger social implications. Some of the possible new infrastructure may need to be built on Wiyot land.

“In general, the Wiyot Tribe has long supported renewable energy development that is well sited, and are open minded and excited about the potential for offshore wind on the north coast,” Wiyot Natural Resource Specialist Adam Canter said at a public offshore wind energy webinar. “Especially the community-based approach and stakeholder involvement that this group of partners is taking early on during the planning process.”

For now, the feasibility of an offshore wind farm is still being studied. Community input is still being gathered, and nothing is set in stone.

“The Schatz Center is not committed to any trajectory. We are committed to providing good information so that good decisions can be made,” Cheli said. “I think the more that people can become informed about, you know, the impacts on the opportunities of any particular pursuit related to energy, the better decisions we can make for ourselves and for the planet as a whole.”

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