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A local wind port may be the key to capturing the economic boost of offshore wind projects—but some are skeptical that it's feasible

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The Central Coast has the green light from the federal government to develop wind energy off the coast of Morro Bay, and lease auctions are opening up this year. But how much the local economy will benefit from such a project is still unclear—and the answer depends on the feasibility of a local port.

WIND POWERED Proposed wind turbines off the coast of Morro Bay would float on barges and be connected to the ocean floor with cables. - FILE RENDERING COURTESY OF BOEM
  • File Rendering Courtesy Of Boem
  • WIND POWERED Proposed wind turbines off the coast of Morro Bay would float on barges and be connected to the ocean floor with cables.

"Last week's record-breaking $4.37 billion New York Bight offshore wind lease sale makes clear that the market for the clean energy economy is hot," Melissa James, president and CEO of local economic coalition REACH, told New Times in a written statement.

But a REACH-commissioned economic report (pdf) published last year by Cal Poly, found that the Central Coast's economy won't benefit nearly as much from offshore wind development without also building a specialized wind port here in SLO County.

California doesn't currently have any wind ports, but it will need one in order to construct and maintain offshore wind turbines—which the Biden administration wants to deploy up and down the state's coastline. Having a port on Central Coast land would mean the assembly, maintenance, and repair of wind turbines—and many of the jobs that come with those projects—would come from the local region, and thereby benefit the local economy, the report found.

REACH and local politicians have called for a feasibility study to see if a SLO County wind port is possible, and some have proposed building it where Diablo Canyon Power Plant sits now.

But Martin Rodriguez, a Tri-County Building and Construction Trades Council executive, isn't too optimistic.

"The ability to have a port there is probably not realistic, and this is just from my conversations with the contractors looking at these areas," Rodriguez said. "The biggest detractor for a port in SLO is Diablo won't be completely decommissioned until 2035 and these [wind turbines] will be done by then."

Rodriguez believes the region's economy can still benefit from wind energy without a local port.

"If we're going to be involved on the Central Coast it's going to be in the manufacturing and supply chain end of these things," he said. "That's where the jobs will come from."

Though offshore wind is a new concept in California, Rodriguez believes the labor can stay local.

"We already do wind turbines," he said. "We've got a project in Lompoc right now, and the blades, the towers are all the same."

What's different, of course, are the floating barges the offshore turbines would sit on.

"So you need a deepwater port," Rodriguez said. "I don't see a heavy industrial port being developed right there at the nuclear site. The logistics are not there for setting up a crane and building the infrastructure you're going to need."

Hertz Ramirez, business manager of construction union Local 220, agreed that labor unions like his are equipped to build wind turbines.

"Local 220 covers San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Kern counties, where we've worked on numerous onshore wind turbine projects," Ramirez said. "We have not done any offshore wind, but our sister locals out in the New England region have worked on them. So I don't think it's something we have to bring in a different workforce for: I think we can prepare our workforce for when the time comes for that work."

But, he continued, the regional economic benefits would be greater with a specialized wind port.

"It would create permanent jobs for the maintenance, the lay-down yard, et cetera," he said. "I think it would be important for the economy, especially to replace some of the permanent jobs that would be lost with Diablo Canyon being shut down."

Decommissioning Diablo will require hundreds of workers to complete, and the Tri-County Building Trades Council is working to get a project labor agreement in place for it, which ensures that skilled union labor is employed.

The Diablo Canyon Decommissioning Engagement Panel, which PG&E convened to foster communication and public involvement on the power plant's decommissioning process, is on board. On the panel's website, it formally recommends that PG&E implement "non-discriminatory project labor agreements that incentivize local contractors [to] hire from the local workforce for decommissioning activities."

U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) also supports employing union labor on big projects like Diablo decommissioning as well as offshore wind. He said the bipartisan infrastructure package signed into law last November will "support local jurisdictions' implementation of project labor agreements" on projects like these, "and creates a hiring framework for local hiring."

But not everyone agrees with this approach.

Cordelia Perry is the executive director of the San Luis Obispo County Builders Exchange, a contractors' association. From Perry's perspective, having a project labor agreement forces contractors to "pay into the union" and to take more union employees than they might otherwise.

"It all falls onto the general contractor, who was forced to take an employee from the union," Perry said. "He has no idea how long he's been with the union, how long he's been trained."

Project labor agreements aside, Perry is concerned that the Central Coast's labor force isn't ready for an offshore wind project.

"As far as really assuring that our local hire can be the boots on the ground ... with the offshore wind, I'm not so sure, just because it's such a specialized trade," she said. "People who work in nuclear power plants are specialized, they work here for three months and then go elsewhere in the country."

And Perry thinks the wind farm labor will look the same. But REACH's James is confident that the Central Coast and its labor force is ready for offshore wind.

"The lease auctions are opening up on the Central Coast this fall," she said, "and we are working with legislators, regulators, and elected leaders to advance the planning and due diligence necessary to site and locate the facilities and jobs that will ensure we enable this industry to flourish here." Δ

Reach Staff Writer Malea Martin at mmartin@newtimesslo.com.

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