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California moves ahead with plans for floating wind turbines miles off its coastline

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

California is charging ahead with plans for floating wind turbines miles off its coastline. A federal lease auction took place last month, a first for the state. The future turbines will generate enough wind to power 1.5 million homes. From member station KQED, Kevin Stark reports.

KEVIN STARK, BYLINE: California's coast - rocky bluffs running into green-black water and a completely empty horizon.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

STARK: In the coming years, about 20 miles off the coast, state plans for two clusters of wind turbines on floating platforms. For the Biden administration, it's a cornerstone of its ambitious climate plan. For Jeff Hunerlach, it means jobs for his members.

JEFF HUNERLACH: Tens of thousands of jobs, from construction phase to operation and maintenance and supply chains.

STARK: Hunerlach is a union rep for the operating engineers in Northern California's Humboldt County. That's one of the auction areas for the offshore wind leases. California air regulators have charted an ambitious path to dramatically reduce planet-warming gas emissions over the next two decades and spur job growth.

LIANE M RANDOLPH: And there is only one way to do that.

STARK: That's the state's top air official, Liane Randolph.

RANDOLPH: Break forever our dependence on fossil fuels and move as fast as we can to a clean-energy economy.

STARK: California's goal is for five gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2030. That's roughly equal to the energy output of eight natural gas power plants. Sam Eaton is an executive with RWE, one of the winning developers. The company has projects in the water all around the U.K., Germany and elsewhere.

SAM EATON: California's auction really put the U.S. right at the forefront of the leading floating markets in the world.

STARK: Developers are investing tens of millions of dollars into training workers on the East Coast.

EATON: I would expect that we will see a very similar paradigm come to bear on the West Coast.

STARK: Stephanie McClellan runs the offshore wind nonprofit Turn Forward and has advised many states on offshore wind. California's sale generated $750 million last month. She says that strong signal shows developers are invested in the U.S. market.

STEPHANIE MCCLELLAN: So when we have offshore wind developers and the offshore wind industry committed to the U.S. market, it means they're going to do more for the U.S. market. We're not just sort of a little outpost.

STARK: RWE, Equinor wind and other big, multinational energy companies won leases.

MCCLELLAN: These are established players. The leases are in good hands.

STARK: But not everyone agrees. Frankie Myers, vice chair of the Yurok Tribe, says RWE and other winners didn't consult with the tribe ahead of California's auction. We spoke over Zoom after the results. Developers spent around $150 million for individual leases.

FRANKIE MYERS: And the fact that they either recognized and didn't care or didn't care enough to recognize is extremely off-putting for our tribal government.

STARK: Myers views offshore wind as the same as any other industry looking at outcomes for the tribe.

MYERS: We're asking these developers to simply view us for what we are, as sovereign nationalists.

STARK: RWE's Eaton says he's committed to working with the Yurok Tribe.

EATON: Honestly, it was just a little too early for us to begin the conversation.

STARK: Dick Ogg fishes for crab, albacore, black cod and rockfish.

DICK OGG: We'll fish salmon from, you know, down by Morro Bay all the way up to, you know, Crescent City.

STARK: He's been a fisherman for more than 20 years. On this day, Ogg is at a boatyard in Sausalito.

OGG: I'm not opposed to any of this. I do have a lot of questions in mind.

STARK: Questions like, where will they be able to fish? And how will the infrastructure impact the wild fishery?

OGG: You're basically closing off a large area that maybe has been used for drag fishing, may have been used for longlining.

STARK: The industry has urged federal and state regulatory agencies to slow down the development of offshore wind. Eaton says it will be the early 2030s before the first turbines spin off the state's northern coast.

For NPR News, I'm Kevin Stark in San Francisco.

KELLY: And this story was produced through a collaboration between KQED in California and Climate Central. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Stark / KQED