"The EcoNews Report," May 25, 2024.

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Welcome to the Econews Report. I'm your host this week, Tom Wheeler, executive director of EPIC, the Environmental Protection Information Center. And I'm joined by Ciara Emery and Joel Southall from RWE. And we're going to be talking about RWE's work to map the ocean floor in the offshore wind energy area. Hey, Joel. Hey, Ciara.


Hello Tom, how are you?


I'm doing well. So Joel, let's start with you. Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do with RWE.


Sure thing, Tom. So thank you for having me first off. So I'm the Manager of Environmental Affairs and Sustainability for RWE's offshore work in the United States, and I spend a lot of my time working on the Canopy Project. So the two parts of my title there, so the Environmental Affairs part, is really thinking about how do we look at the environmental impacts of offshore wind, how do we look at the environmental benefits of offshore wind and all of our efforts in the project, and how do we do baseline characterization studies? How do we understand what lives where relative to the project?

And Sustainability part of my title, that applies to the project itself. So how are we thinking about, you know, how are we building the project? What are the materials going into it? What's the energy that goes into it versus the energy we get out of it? And also the sustainability aspects of our company as a whole as well.

I've been in the offshore wind industry for a little over four years now. I've been with RWE for a little over a year. I grew up in New England, but I've spent a ton of time in California. I actually used to live in California. I've spent a lot of time on the California coast, and I've loved getting out to Humboldt and spending time around where the Canopy Project is going to be.


And Canopy, that is the name for the RWE portion of this. We have this one large kind of offshore wind energy area that's been split into two. RWE is one of the developers and Vineyard is the other. RWE it's calling their part of the project Canopy. So if you hear that, that's what we're in reference to is 60 something thousand acres, 20 miles offshore. 

Ciara, Ciara Emery might be familiar folks, because she is a Humboldt County local by local. I mean, maybe not fromboldt, but one of Humboldt's own, has been living in Humboldt County for a while. And Ciara, I actually met you way before we were talking about RWE and all of this, but we were talking about offshore wind because you were working on your master's thesis on offshore wind. Tell us a bit about your work at RWE and how you came to this position.


Yeah, yeah, I appreciate it. And thanks for having us. We're excited to chat with you today. I am the local government stakeholder engagement manager for the canopy project here in California. We have a team of three people who live locally in Humboldt County, including myself. And basically, I lead all of our local engagement efforts. So I guide our local strategy and our engagement priorities and really make sure that we're striving to build something that meets needs, community needs, wants and attempts to address concerns. So it's been wonderful to connect with everybody.

I came to RWE from my role with Congressman Jared Huffman's office. I served with him in Humboldt, Del Norte, Trinity and Sonoma counties for a while. And as you alluded to, I am a Cal Poly Humboldt. At the time, it was Humboldt State University, I still like to say HSU. So I came, I'm an alumni, I did my both my undergrad and my graduate degree at HSU. My graduate degree was actually in coordination with Schatz Energy Research Center and Dr. Lori Richmond. They had gotten some early funding from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Ocean Protection Council to study what this whole wind thing might look like in Humboldt County. This was around 2017.

So basically, I spent two years chatting with folks, including you, in the community about what what came up when you think about offshore wind? What were the questions of which there were many? What are the potential concerns? What are folks excited about? And so I spent about two years doing that.

And it was a really interesting time to be in the renewable energy space in Humboldt County, because two things were happening. One, the Redwood Coast Energy Authority was at the time, had done a solicitation to work with a group of partners to explore what's called an unsolicited lease request. So basically, your Redwood Coast Energy Authority wanted to engage the federal government through the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, to see if there was a possibility if they could lead offshore wind locally in a research project. So they were engaging with federal and state partners over that effort, starting as early as I think 2016. At the same time, the Terragen Wind Project was starting to percolate locally.

And so there were a lot of conversations about Humboldt County's renewable energy future, what the community wanted to see, what impacts was it concerned about? Did it want to pursue this onshore wind project, which ultimately, it decided not to, and how that kind of percolated with the offshore wind conversation here locally. So what BOEM decided to do out of all of these conversations was that they joined the sort of California conversation at the beginning, and they joined, they created what's called an intergovernmental task force.

So they brought leaders from the federal government, leaders from the state government, together, and they used this intergovernmental working group to come up with what's called wind energy areas. And that's what you alluded to, at the beginning of our conversation was these areas that were identified in federal waters offshore, that took in considerations of existing uses, fisheries, where we know certain biological species are, and they collected all of this data in the data basin is what it's called. And you can look that up online. All of the data of what contributed to these wind energy areas is still there. And then they said, we think that we have enough information to designate some areas where it might make the most sense to have an offshore renewable energy project. And then they said, we're going to do a competitive lease.

So they did a competitive lease in December of 2022. And out of that competitive auction, RWE and Vineyard Offshore became the two leases of that space of Federal Ocean. And so what does that mean? That means that the lease gives us permission to ask for permission to do survey work. So that's the next step in this long winding process that we've embarked on. The federal government has done initial environmental reviews to determine what survey work, what the impact of that might be, and what the process for that is going to be. And that's this this couple year period that we're in now.


Which is a helpful reminder here that I feel like in Humboldt County. Offshore wind feels like it's just around the corner, right? That it's going to be something in fall 2024. It's not it. It we're, we're thinking about a decade planning horizon here. This is a marathon, not a sprint. This is a long, long process of among other things, getting this information about this, this site that is potentially going to be developed. What is out there, the biological life that's out there, having a better understanding of the birds, the marine mammals that utilize this area, having a better understanding of the, the wind and the wind resources out there.

And also, and this is today's show, having a better understanding of the, of the ocean floor, and this is something that's relatively not well known. It's a thousand plus feet deep, 20 miles offshore. It's an area that humans don't usually go to. That we've done very preliminary work in mapping, but the maps are pretty fuzzy. And so now with this research, we'll get clearer and clearer and clearer maps of, of what the ocean floor actually looks like. What are the sort of structures, the, the, the deposits, the whatever that are on the ocean floor that we should avoid, or we should, that would make good areas for, for offshore wind. So we'll, we'll get into that.

So this is, this is the site assessment activities. Joel, how long does REWE kind of anticipate that it's going to study this offshore wind energy area ahead of developing a construction and operation plan?


Yeah, before I get to that, one thing that you said, I think that's really interesting was that idea of, it seems like offshore runs right around the corner, but it's a long timeframe. That, I think that goes for, for a couple of other things as well, where there's this almost dichotomy where in some ways it feels like it's right around the corner and other ways, it's a long ways off in some ways. It seems like it's new. In some ways there's been all of that work that Ciara was talking about. In some ways it feels like a new industry, but in other ways, it's a really mature industry globally. So there's projects that are being decommissioned in other parts of the world they've been around for so long.

So it stood out to me when you said that, because there is that duality almost with some of the dynamics here. And I just always find that, find that to be interesting. On your question around the timing, the timing of this is a little bit influenced by what the surveys show this year, so they're designed intentionally to be an iterative process where the first work informs later work. And that it's also determined by the fact that we don't have some of those key project elements and key project decisions yet to determine exactly what needs to be surveyed and where. So things like exactly how many turbines and where, and location of where cables might go, those sorts of decisions that haven't been made. It means that those sorts of survey activities and efforts haven't been described yet because you need the area and the design needs before you can design the survey to address that.

So it's a little bit of a tricky question to answer because we need to do some of the initial surveys and then get through some key decision points before you could actually answer that for this year's surveys, which are being proposed for the summer, that would be from around the middle to end of June to around the middle to end of August.


All right, so I describe this as our map of the ocean floor is fuzzy, and we're hoping to have greater clarity, higher definition maps of the ocean floor. Can you talk about why that matters for something that's going to be floating? These seem kind of disconnected in some sense.


Yeah, definitely, and it's a really good question, and this is another one of those dualities, which is, in some ways, we don't know a lot about the ocean floor around the globe. In other ways, there's been a lot of really good work that's been done in the past that has gotten us to where we are, that has led to a really good base of knowledge that has said this is why the wind energy area is and why RWE's lease area for canopy is where it is.

The fuzziness you're talking about, or that sort of granularity, or if you think about it almost as like when you're on YouTube and you're selecting the quality level and the number of pixels and how fuzzy it is, it's kind of the same thing here, where the information that's been collected is very useful for some things, but not for everything, and useful at some resolution, but not necessarily at the resolution that's needed for a particular engineering decision that we might need to make. So, a lot of it does come down to that fuzziness and fine-tuning things and getting them a little bit less fuzzy, like you were talking about. So, it's really interesting. There's very specific data standards for that level of resolution that you need to provide to meet regulatory guidelines for what survey data you have to present, and also we need that sort of information to make those design decisions.

So, a lot of the information we have around the bathymetry or what the topography of the bottom of the ocean, that's at pretty coarse levels, and for the purposes of understanding where anchors for a floating turbine might need to go, it needs to be at a finer level of resolution. So, to your question about why you might need that for floating offshore wind, there's two things that come to mind. One is, the floating turbines are anchored, and so you need to know that for that purpose, but also because we're getting survey information for those very technical engineering decisions, and also so that we can make the best environmental decisions as well, and sometimes those go hand in hand with the engineering decisions, but the types of surveys that we would be doing this summer are aimed at providing a picture of the floor, understanding what the soils are like there, but also putting that together with some benthic surveys that we'll be doing this summer, benthic in this case being just a name for the bottom, what lives there and what sort of habitats are there.

So, getting a better understanding of the environment as well, so it's not all just aimed at the engineering decisions. It's, to your point earlier, getting an improved understanding of the area and of the habitats and what different communities are using different areas and how we can avoid those in the future.


I'll just say, Tom, survey work is critical, right? We hear in the community a lot, and I know that you and your team have had questions about this, about what do we understand and what don't we understand, and what steps are we taking to increase our knowledge about what is happening on the seafloor, and what decisions we make, and how we can also be environmentally minded. So these surveys are critical in every decision that folks in the community ask us about. If there is a concern that there's not enough information, we're trying to get it, and we're really excited about that.


We are the Econews Report and we're talking about surveying the ocean floor for offshore wind.


I think at the most basic level, it comes down to better knowledge leads to better decisions. And this is the way to go get that knowledge.


Someone asked me the other day, well, how many turbines are going to be out there? And I said, well, we don't know yet because the data is not in. And part of this study of the ocean floor is going to determine where it's possible to have these turbines. And it might be that there are areas that where it's not possible to have the turbines. Maybe there are areas that have high biological resources that need to be protected, that we should also avoid. So this is all like influx, which, which is exciting, but it's also kind of nerve wracking, right? People like to have solid answers and the, the kind of best thing that we can offer them at this point is we're studying it. We're studying it. We're studying it. We're studying it. All right. Let's talk about that study. How does one map the bottom of the ocean or, or, or how, how does it usually done? And how perhaps is RWE proposing to do it? And why in your view, is that a superior way of, of mapping the ocean floor? Joel, I'll send that one to you.


Sure, and I think that that point you bring up about how things are in flux is important because I also, I want to point out that that's by design because like to borrow your phrase, the data is not in, right? So the process is set up such that you go collect site characterization information like this, which plugs into the process, which then helps you make those decisions later. So I just want to make sure I hit on that again, it's by design. The point that Ciara had earlier about what the lease allows you to do at this point about proposing surveys, if you have a lease area, that doesn't mean that you are able to do, to put turbines everywhere inside of that box on a map, right? It allows you to go do surveys to determine what that might look like. And so those things like numbers of turbines really is contingent on this sort of work and on public input and on a whole lot of other things.

But that flux is by design because it's put there to allow for survey information and public input and a lot of other things to feed into that process. So to your question on how, there are a lot of different ways to get information about the bottom. I am not a geophysicist or a geologist. We have folks on our team and there's companies that we work with that are the experts in a lot of the technicalities of that, but I can definitely go through how we think about it at a high level here. And so the term you'll hear used often is GNG or geophysical and geotechnical. So the geophysical surveys that we're proposing for this summer are what essentially gives you an image of the bottom and underneath the bottom because like the anchors penetrate the seafloor seat, you need to understand what's below just the surface.

Geotechnical surveys give you a good idea of what the seafloor and what the sediments under the seafloor are actually like by taking sediment samples and then studying those. The benthic surveys also take samples so we can understand the wildlife and habitats that are down there as well. The geophysical surveys that we are proposing for this summer would utilize what's called an AUV or an autonomous underwater vehicle. The way that that survey is done is you have a service vessel that deploys the AUV which is about 19 feet long and then it independently operates and it travels along predetermined routes to map the seafloor. There have been other surveys where the typical way to do that is you have a towed array so the equipment that maps the seafloor is at the surface and is being towed behind the vessel.

I do wanna point out that it's a possibility that RWE would use that and that's something that we've contemplated in future years is that sort of survey and that is how a lot of these surveys have been conducted and maybe in the future but for the work for this summer, it's using that AUV as the vessel for the survey equipment.


And so how does the AUV understand what's on the ocean floor? Can you talk about the kind of difference between the AUV and a toad behind a ray?


Yeah. So both of those types of surveys use sounds to map the floor and how sound moves between the equipment and the seafloor and how that is interpreted gets output as data that essentially give you an image of the floor like a fish finder uses a similar concept. After it's deployed, it traverses on predetermined routes. It uses both imagery to capture photographs of the bottom and it also uses equipment that produces sound and the way that that sound is transmitted from the AUV off of the seafloor and back gives essentially another image of the seafloor and that's these surveys which are done and have been done for a lot longer than offshore wind has been using them.

That's a very standard way to map the seafloor. So when you see images of the seafloor that's never been mapped for not for offshore wind industry purpose but for other purposes it's using that sort of technology. The difference between an AUV and a towed array is largely owed to the position in the water. So like you were saying earlier the water depths in our lease area are over a thousand feet and so the it's from about 550 feet to almost 1100 feet and the AUV will be traveling not all that far off of the seafloor so about 40 meters or 120 feet. If it sees an area of interest it will lower down to get a better image about 6 meters or about 18 feet off of the bottom and because of that position in the water column that just means that the survey equipment is closer to the bottom and that the sound is not moving through the water column like a towed array might be.


So to, to put it in even simpler terms, because it's closer to the bottom, it can be a little bit quieter and essentially, yeah. Right. Cause if you're at the, at the ocean's top and you're having to send a noise all the way down to the ocean bottom, it's going to take a lot more energy for something to get down there, bounce off the floor, come back and provide you kind of what the data that you're going to need.

So Sarah, as I understand it, the choice of this technology is, is, is interesting and wasn't necessarily comprehended by Bohm before that, that you're kind of going above and beyond Bohm's expectations here, and that has resulted in not confusion, but trying to do a better, cooler thing has some costs perhaps associated with it.


Yeah, I mean coming from a girl who used to work for the federal government, I think the feds are not always known for being the most up to speed on all the different ways that technology is advancing, right? And so with the AUV, we've had a lot of interesting conversations. We've had interesting conversations with ENGOs, with state and federal governments, with tribal nations, with a range of people who are interested in the data collection, who are interested in survey efforts, who have a lot of questions about what the impacts of surveys are, and what our efforts really look like, and what are we really proposing. And it's been really cool to kind of talk about this, what we think is a really cool piece of technology, and a really good solution for this year's survey. So we're excited about it.


All right. In addition to the AUVs emitting less noise and having perhaps less of a risk for marine mammals as a result, there are other safeguards in place that will help to reduce potential negative impacts to marine mammals and other wildlife. Ciara, I understand that RWE has or is in the process of training its first crew of protected species observers. Can you talk about what a PSO, a protected species observer, is and their role in this process?


Yeah, I'll let Joel speak to the specifics of the program. But what I will say is that we worked together with the field team, with Joel, and the permitting team and our developers to create a very cool local first workforce development program in this region. We were able to certify 19 local and tribal individuals in this region that can operate. If they continue on and get the rest of the training, they can operate internationally on survey vessels all over the globe, doing the kind of biological monitoring on the vessel, marine mammal and other monitoring that's required for some of this work. So I'll let Joel speak to that. But I really don't want to underplay, Tom, how awesome it was to see folks hanging out at the Blue Lake Rancheria, spending a weekend together, and providing the fact that we were able to provide this program to local people was really, really cool.

So just want to thank Joel and everybody on our team who was able to make that happen. It was great to see and it's the first workforce effort of many to come. So Joel, I'll let you speak to the specifics, though, of what those folks do.


Yeah, and I'll start by saying how exciting and rewarding that was for me, too. I was able to be in town for that and to meet with all of the 19 individuals that Ciara was talking about. And it was really nice to see how excited people were and how eager people were to learn. So the protected species observers do exactly what their job title sounds like. They observe for protected species while we would be out surveying and eventually out constructing as well. So that's to make sure that the safeguards are in place to protect the wildlife and also to make sure that we're complying with all of the regulations that are in place for how we go about surveying and how we would eventually go about constructing the wind farm. And one of the things that is really important here is they make sure that the survey equipment and vessels are operating and moving, transiting in a way that doesn't interfere with the species that they're observing for.

This actually goes back to your point earlier, Tom, about the difference between an AUV survey and a towed array survey, which is that once the AUV goes below the surface of the water, you can't visually observe for it. And also, it has the type of equipment on that doesn't require that type of observation. And so that frees up more time in a PSO's day to observe for other sorts of wildlife. So one of the things we did with the PSO training program was that program is a federal program that the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, that's a program where you are certified to serve as a PSO around the country. And it really has focused on mitigations for marine mammals and also sea turtles. Because of the type of surveys that we're proposing this summer that don't require that sort of observation or mitigation, the PSO's, like I said, will have more time in the day to observe for other things.

So we added an entire day of bird observation module to that training, and are going to be having people collect data on a wider range of species that they would not normally be able to collect because of that additional time in their day. So this is an opportunity for us to be able to collect additional, more complete, less fuzzy data by PSO's in an area where that observational effort has not been conducted at a particularly high level in the past. So.


Joel, when do you anticipate that work, doing the site assessment activities for the ocean floor, when do you believe that that's going to start this year and when do you anticipate it's going to end and what comes after this?


We're proposing to start in the middle to end of June and be done by the middle to end of August, and that is contingent on weather, which is something that can definitely shift how activities like this happen. By design, within that time frame, we'd be conducting geophysical surveys first, and then geotechnical and benthic surveys after because they're done that way by design because they inform each other. In terms of what's next, we and what other site assessment work might need to be completed and when, that's also dependent on the result of this summer surveys. That's also by design done this way. What we're doing this summer would give us very useful data to make some planning and design and engineering decisions, but it also lets us know what other work needs to be done in the future.


Well, I'm sure we'll have Joel and Sarah on in the future to talk about the kind of next iteration in this, in this process to understand the offshore wind energy area and how to appropriately site and avoid impacts. So Joel and Sarah, thank you so much for joining the Econews report.


Cool. Sounds good. Thank you, Tom. We'll see you again.


All right, join us again next week on this time and channel for more environmental news from the north coast of California.