Photo: National Renewable Energy Lab

New extension helps prep Humboldt County for the growth of offshore wind power

Boyce Upholt

In late 2022, the federal government held an auction in which dozens of companies competed to snap up leases on offshore waters. They were seeking rights to develop floating offshore wind farms, considered a crucial component of California’s ambitious plans to reduce its carbon emissions. The auction included two sites spanning 206 square miles that lie twenty miles off Humboldt Bay — a mostly quiet, rural region that, within a few years, may become home to floating wind farms that produce enough power to 600,000 homes each year.

The North Coast is no stranger to boom-time economies: there was the gold boom, and then a timber boom, and lately a cannabis boom. But as these industries went bust, they left behind a landscape of damaged ecosystems.

Tanner Etherton

“Humboldt County is now trying to cultivate a more resilient economy,” says Tanner Etherton, who early this year became California Sea Grant’s latest extension agent. Offshore wind could be a positive step, he notes, since it is a less extractive approach. But its long-term impacts are hard to know — and there’s a danger that this could be one more boom that busts.

It’s crucial, then, that any offshore wind development be pursued thoughtfully, “providing lasting benefits to our community without repeating the mistakes of our past,” he says.

Etherton is, officially, an economic analyst and offshore wind extension specialist at the Schatz Energy Research Center at Cal Poly Humboldt. “That mouthful of a title means that my job will be to develop analysis and outreach related to the economic and workforce implications of potential offshore wind development in our region,” he says.

Etherton has been meeting with community and tribal leadership to better understand local concerns and needs, “so that I and the Schatz Center can address knowledge gaps and work to enable tribes and communities to advocate for their needs and benefits,” he explains.

Etherton notes, as an example, that the new wind farms can’t work alone — new transmission lines will need to be built to deliver the energy to the grid. There has been relatively little analysis of the economic impacts of this secondary development. And there are pressing questions, including how the new infrastructure will impact a region that already faces frequent outages, particularly in outlying tribal communities. He’s also been examining the labor and supply-chain requirements of the offshore wind industry. “By prioritizing local labor and firms, we can significantly enhance local economic and community benefits,” he says.

Etherton has long roots in the region; his parents met here while planting trees for the US Forest Service. Though Etherton grew up in central southern California, at the bottom of the Sierras, almost all of his family eventually returned to Humboldt Bay. Etherton attended Cal Poly Humboldt, where he majored in economics. A senior-year internship with the county turned into a full-time role as an economic development specialist. His years around Humboldt Bay have inspired a love of its landscape: He’s a mountain biker, crab fishes most seasons, and enjoys kayaking the local bay, lagoons and rivers.

One appeal of this new role, he notes, is the opportunity to work for the Schatz Center, which has been a leader in developing and implementing renewable energy solutions and has become a trusted source of knowledge within the community. Etherton hopes to be able to contribute to this legacy by helping the community develop strategies to manage the impacts of the new industry while sustaining what they value.

“It's a truly unique and precious place," he says, "I look forward to helping to preserve the qualities and advancing our understanding of this emerging industry.”

About California Sea Grant

NOAA’s California Sea Grant College Program funds marine research, education and outreach throughout California. Headquartered at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, California Sea Grant is one of 34 Sea Grant programs in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Department of Commerce.