Humboldt County’s proposed offshore wind project would significantly reduce carbon emissions throughout California by providing upwards of 1.6 gigawatts of clean, renewable-sourced energy. But to ensure the success of offshore wind and to meet the promise of climate action, decision-makers must commit to a green port facility capable of building and servicing the turbines while not further contributing to greenhouse gas emissions or polluting Humboldt Bay.

A key component of a thriving offshore wind industry is a port capable of constructing, assembling, and maintaining wind turbines. The Humboldt Bay Harbor District has partnered with Crowley Wind Services, a multinational port development company, to build this heavy lift terminal on the Samoa Peninsula. There are various potential benefits: port development could create many family-wage jobs and substantially contribute to a growing local economy—all while making important strides towards a clean-energy future to address the climate crisis.

Unfortunately, these types of heavy-lift terminals have a mixed track record for communities. On land, port equipment such as terminal tractors, forklifts, yard trucks, cranes, and handlers commonly run on diesel. In the water, most heavy-duty cargo ships and tugboats also run on diesel or heavy fuel oil, polluting the air. Ships and tugs even burn fuel while docked at the terminal to maintain a base load of electricity. As a result, communities surrounding these ports often suffer from the effects of air pollution. In Los Angeles, for example, air quality studies revealed that these diesel fumes significantly raised cancer risk for people within fifteen miles of the terminals.

Our port doesn’t have to be this way. Recent technological developments have made major progress towards enabling the possibility of a ‘green port.’ Green ports seek to make all aspects of operation sustainable, from the heavy machinery on land to the ships docked at the harbor. This work requires moving away from fossil fuels and shifting towards electrification and other zero-carbon energy sources, such as green hydrogen.

Other ports are already demonstrating that these zero-emission targets are attainable with the electrification of terminal equipment, resulting in cleaner day-to-day operations. Additionally, installing shore power stations can reduce pollution from idling ships by up to 95 percent when tapped into the electricity grid while at berth. Another clean-air possibility was revealed at a recent public engagement meeting when Crowley representatives touted the planned creation of an all-electric tugboat to service the Bay of San Diego. When the wind turbines are constructed and start generating electricity, the green port could become doubly effective by storing energy during peak production. By relying heavily on these evolving technologies, Humboldt Bay could be uniquely positioned to become a trailblazer and a worldwide leader in green port development.

Financial barriers to this type of infrastructure are also disappearing. Not only is the technology becoming more affordable, but a flurry of state, federal, and philanthropic funding could make a sustainable buildout financially lucrative. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 set aside three billion dollars for green port infrastructure. In a recent public board meeting, the Executive Director of the Harbor District commented on the difficulties of securing grant funding for terminal development, stating that Port Development Infrastructure Program grants are “highly competitive.” Humboldt County will be a far stronger candidate for such funding if decision-makers formally commit to an ambitious zero-emissions approach that builds strong support within the community while telling a unique and compelling story.

Finally, it’s also important to note that this approach is not just vital to the community, the environment, and the public image of the project—it’s also likely to benefit the Harbor District, Crowley, and the other developers in the long term. Zero-emissions targets are already in place on various levels. Port green-ification will likely become the subject of future stringent state and federal law. The port can save time and money by building a modernized, green port today rather than having to retrofit one tomorrow.

We are not arguing against offshore wind. We are arguing for responsible development — starting with the design of a fossil fuel-free port. That is why any lease agreement between the Harbor District and port developers should be ambitious in its goals to reach zero-emission by 2035. Incorporating these requirements into the lease agreement would be a testament to genuine commitment towards good port practice and the general public. Relationships aren’t just built under good faith. They are built by concrete actions that help establish trust. And that trust can go a long way in establishing a reciprocal relationship that benefits both the community and the developers through what looks to be a long, complicated, and arduous process.

Luis Neuner
Decarbonize the North Coast Advocate
Environmental Protection Information Center

Jennifer Kalt
Executive Director
Humboldt Baykeeper

Caroline Griffith
Executive Director
Northcoast Environmental Center

Colin Fiske
Executive Director
Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities