From the earliest exploration by European explorers of what became California, its position on the western coast of the North American continent has been its most important attribute.
Its coastline allowed that exploration and the development of outposts while most of the continent was still a mysterious wilderness. It fostered the 1849 gold rush that hastened California statehood. Its beaches drew millions of visitors. It made California the arsenal and staging point for World War II’s Pacific Theater and, finally, it became a focal point of global oceanic trade.
Could California’s coastal waters now become its savior, ending ever-increasing shortages of water and electrical energy that threaten the state’s economic and societal future?
Yes it could, but only if California’s political and civic leaders overcome their tendency to muff big public works — as symbolized by the bullet train’s history of over-spending and under-performing, decades of foot-dragging on much-needed water storage projects, and crippling bottlenecks at the state’s ports.
Finally, after decades of dithering, California’s Byzantine bureauracy is finally warming up to desalination of seawater as a vital piece of the state’s water supply, although it still resists big projects that could have real impact on shortages as it does in other water-short nations.
Meanwhile, California is just beginning to grasp the potential of offshore windmills to generate huge amounts of renewable electrical energy that would help close the state’s current supply gap, fill enormous new demands, and meet the state’s ambitious goals for ending its dependence on fossil fuels.
Last week, the federal government conducted auctions for windpower development rights on two oceanic sites, one 20 miles west of Morro Bay and the other off Humboldt County.
Advocates believe the sites could generate up to 8 gigawatts of electrical power, about one-sixth of the state’s current peak power demand on hot summer days and about a third of the state’s goal of 25 gigawatts of offshore windpower by 2045.
“Offshore wind is a critical component to achieving our world-leading clean energy goals and this sale is an historic step on California’s march toward a future free of fossil fuels,” Newsom said in a statement.
However, given the state’s sorry record on big-impact projects, will it really happen? Will we, as state plans now suggest, really see offshore power begin to flow into the grid within 10 years?
Don’t count on it.
The floating platforms to support the immense windmills, anchored in more than 2,000 feet of water, face critical attention from environmental groups and a phalanx of federal and state regulatory hurdles. They also would require onshore support facilities in coastal communities where resistance to development is culturally ingrained, plus cables to bring the power to shore and extensive expansions of transmission facilities to tie into the grid.
The time frame to make all of this happen, as the state assumes in its overall plan to shift California to renewable electric power, is very short. We’re now 22 years into the 21st century and supposedly all of this would occur in just 23 more years — simultaneously with many other elements of decarbonization, such as shifting to battery- or hydrogen-powered cars and trucks and eliminating natural gas in homes, business and industry.
It would take an immense cultural change in the state’s governing apparatus to make it all happen by the designated deadline, a sense of urgency, a unity of purpose, and much more managerial competence than California has mustered in the last half-century.
The ocean could, indeed, be our savior. Theoretically, it could provide limitless amounts of clean water and clean power. But it won’t happen unless we make it happen.
About the Author
Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. For more columns by Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.
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