Lake Michigan wind farm plan generates angst, highlights work of Wind Council

Norwegian developers are proposing the state’s first offshore wind farm in Lake Michigan near Pentwater. The plan, for up to 200 turbines within two miles of Silver Lake sand dunes, has generated controversy statewide. Developer Scandia Wind Offshore LLC recently announced it was cutting the project size in half and moving it farther offshore in response to criticism.

small_windmill3.jpgAlthough Scandia has not submitted any formal proposal for the wind farm, its publicity has brought the issue to the forefront of public discussion.

Michigan Environmental Council Policy Director James Clift is a member of the Great Lakes Offshore Wind Council, which is tasked with proposing good places for offshore wind development, consistent statewide leasing rules, and provisions for public input.

We asked Clift some questions about the council and the future of offshore wind in Michigan.

What is the Wind Council?

The Great Lakes Offshore Wind Council was created by Governor Granholm in February of 2009 to identify the best potential areas for offshore wind in Michigan, ensure Great Lakes bottomlands are protected and identify other barriers to offshore wind energy development in Michigan. The Council is made up of a wide range of stakeholders including developers, utilities, recreational users, environmental representatives and many others.

When will we see some recommendations?

The council issued its first report on September 1, 2009. It included initial mapping criteria to assess proposals to lease Great Lakes bottomlands, a discussion of current permitting shortfalls and recommended procedures for engaging the public on the issue. The Governor then extended the life of the council, adding new members and charging the council with finishing the mapping exercise, developing a more comprehensive leasing regulation and further engaging the public in a discussion on the topic.

What are the potential benefits of offshore wind in Michigan?

More than 60% of Michigan electricity currently comes from coal-fired power plants. Those plants result in significant public health costs and damage to our natural resources. They also result in billions of dollars a year leaving the state to purchase coal from other states. Offshore wind has the potential to reduce the environmental impacts from power production, create jobs that put our manufacturing base back to work and keep more of our money in Michigan rather than buying coal from others.

What are the risks, or drawbacks?

Offshore wind is a new industry for the Great Lakes and thus poses some challenges. The first set of risks involves the impact on birds, wildlife, aquatic ecosystems and bats. Studies in Europe demonstrate that proper location is important and that most species are extremely adaptive to the construction and operation of the wind farms. The legislation recommended by the council requires developers to do a site-specific assessment of their parcel.

The proposed legislation also dedicates the majority of royalties collected for further scientific study and habitat restoration efforts in general. As to the structures themselves, the state can protect itself from other risks by requiring the developer to purchase bonds to ensure structures are maintained and properly removed after their useful life.

The second set of risks involves the economics of the project, such as the amount of power produced and the cost per kilowatt. However, this risk is likely lower than the danger of coal prices escalating sharply in the next decade and causing the same economic disruption as $4 a gallon gasoline did.

Are there places where Michigan should consider not allowing offshore turbines?
Yes, certain areas due to their pristine nature. National Lakeshores and wilderness areas should probably be considered off limits. In other areas, the buffer zone from shore will need to be carefully considered to make sure that other uses are not unreasonably impacted. Water depth will be tricky in many areas due to current constraints on turbine placement in water over 50 meters.

Will they be ugly?

I think wind turbines are a thing of beauty, combining grace with function. In the lakes, they would remind me of what we’re protecting, not whether it changed a scenic vista.

Smokestacks are ugly. Mountaintop removal is ugly. Coal ash piles leaching acidic discharge into our Great Lakes are ugly. What’s more, smokestacks go on to cause millions of dollars of unseen damages, greenhouse gasses that warm the planet, premature heart problems, respiratory ailments, and mercury poisoning of our inland lakes. I’d prefer watching wind turbines spin.

What is the nature of the Ludington proposal?

Scandia Wind has a proposal for a 1000 MW wind farm offshore from the Ludington Pump Storage Facility (recently downsized). They are currently in the public engagement stage holding a number of public and private meetings with people in the community regarding the proposal. They have stated publicly that they will need support from local communities and other business partners (or purchase power agreements) before this project would move forward.

How can Michiganders have input into offshore wind development in general and specific projects in particular?
If Michigan residents truly love their lakes and want to see Michigan prosper, they need to embrace all forms of clean energy including wind, solar and investments in energy efficiency. We need to respect the energy we use the same way we respect the lakes.
So what we need to do is:

  • Demand our elected officials require more investments by our utilities in energy efficiency and renewable energy.
  • Go to local meetings and support renewable energy projects in your area.
  • Spend your tourism dollars in communities that support renewable energy development.
  • Talk to your neighbors about the importance of supporting industries that will put young people back to work in the manufacturing sector.
  • Consider your own project. A solar hot water heater, backyard wind turbine, and new windows and insulation will all help protect the lakes we love.

Where to learn more:

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