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Will Political Reality Shape a Mighty Morro Bay Wind?



Off-shore wind farms are coming to the West Coast, including Morro Bay. (Shutterstock)
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Do we care if climate projects benefit the communities they impact?

That question is posed by the first-ever auction for leases to create off-shore wind farms on the West Coast. The auction awarded rights to build vast flotillas of wind turbines 20 miles off the coasts of San Luis Obispo and Humboldt Counties.

Photo of Joe Mathews

Joe Mathews


This was supposed to be a clarifying moment in California’s commitment to wind energy. The Golden State, for all its supposed climate leadership, has lagged the East Coast in developing offshore wind power. This is partly because of all the local opposition here—from fishing industries, Indigenous communities, and local stakeholders — to changes anywhere near our beloved shoreline.

In response, the rules of the federal government’s lease auction considered not just the amount companies bid, but whether bidders engaged with local communities. Under the formula, companies who reached benefits agreements with a community could earn credits giving them an edge in the auction.

One bidding company did exactly that.

But was it worth the effort?

Need the Wind and the Community at Your Back

This head-scratching story is centered on Morro Bay. When off-shore wind development became a public issue there nearly a decade ago, citizens expressed concerns about the impacts of turbines on birds, fisheries, or, even at a distance of 20 miles from land, the natural beauty of the coast.

But in 2015, Castle Wind LLC — a joint venture between Washington state-based Trident Winds and the subsidiary of a Germany utility — started a dialogue with residents and stakeholders.

Castle Wind, following local leaders’ advice, talked first with fishermen, whose struggles are well-known.

After two-plus years of talks, Castle Wind and two fishermen’s associations forged a novel mutual benefits agreement. The 2018 agreement offered three main benefits for fishermen: a new fund for infrastructure improvements for the commercial fishing industry, new training and employment opportunities, and a process for the local fishing industry to help shape wind project design.

With the fishermen on board, the Morro Bay City Council subsequently approved its own community benefits agreement with Castle Wind. The company agreed to hire local residents, to create internships and training programs at local schools and universities, to establish a maintenance and monitoring facility in the Morro Bay harbor, and to promote local businesses.

Both agreements proved popular. Indeed, last year, Castle Wind and the fishermen deepened their partnership by creating a “mutual benefits corporation” as a legal vehicle for carrying out future joint projects.

Will Money Trump Community?

But when the auction was held in December, the benefits agreements and the corporation didn’t make any difference. Castle Wind, even with credits, did not win a single lease. Instead, the leases in areas off San Luis Obispo County went to three higher bidders — each of whom offered more than $100 million, among them Equinor, a Norwegian state-owned oil company. None had reached agreements with Morro Bay locals, as Castle Wind had.

Did climate trump community? Federal and company officials have been tight-lipped. Locally, city officials and fishermen’s groups have expressed disappointment, and noted pointedly that the winning bidders had not forged community benefits agreements and did not have their support.

But in Morro Bay, there is considerable hope that winning bidders will approach the fishermen, the city, and other communities to execute agreements similar to those completed with Castle Wind. That hope is based on the widespread view that Castle Wind’s agreements were well-drafted, and stood to benefit both sides.

That hope also reflects political reality. California needs clean energy, but constructing wind farms will take years — and is unlikely to succeed if local communities and their state and federal representatives stand in the way.

Yes, talking takes time, and climate change is an emergency. But in California, if you want to build new things to save the climate, you’re better off with the wind, and local communities, at your back.

About the Author

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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