Michigan’s offshore winds harbor vast potential for energy, economic development

MEC committed to helping lay the groundwork for new era of renewable power

Our beloved Great Lakes are our nation’s most valuable fresh water haven. But in the age of peak oil, renewable energy standards and grandiose ‘Pickens like’ energy plans, our lakes’ second most plentiful resource lies hundreds of feet above the waters. That resource is offshore wind energy. 

While Michigan’s offshore wind potential is vast, significant groundwork must be laid before this resource can be aggressively harvested. The Michigan Environmental Council is committed to working with regulators, utilities, businesses and our environmental and public health allies across the state to develop siting standards and other measures that will lay out the welcome mat for offshore wind development without harming the lakes, their natural resources or the aesthetics of our Great Lakes shorelines.

Wind fever is already on its way to Michigan. The state debuted its first commercial scale wind development, Harvest Wind Farm, in Huron County this summer. The 32 John Deere turbines are harnessing over 52 MW some 300 feet above the farmland. Michigan’s Thumb region is the state’s greatest onshore wind resource, and the area is poised for the development of several other large wind farm developments in the near future.

Michigan’s Thumb is not the only area in the state that is looking to erect these awe inspiring turbines. The City of Cadillac recently constructed two turbines, and other places, including Washtenaw County, Manistee, Oakland University and Chippewa County in the U.P., are looking to quickly follow suit.

To this date, discussion of wind energy has been centered on development of onshore wind resources. That mindset, however, may dramatically change now that Michigan has become the 28th state to enact the long-awaited statewide renewable portfolio standard (RPS). The RPS legislation requires utilities in Michigan to produce at least 10% of their energy using renewable resources. Though the bill allows for a myriad of traditional and non-traditional energy resources to be counted towards renewable energy, it is a consensus that wind will be the primary component of Michigan’s RPS.

Recently, a study released by the Land Policy Institute (“Michigan’s Offshore Wind Potential”) quantifies Michigan’s vast offshore resources. The document reports that Michigan alone has approximately 40% of the Great Lakes’ water surface within its jurisdiction and continues by stating “…the offshore wind potential [in Michigan] dwarfs that of Michigan’s onshore potential….” The study’s most ambitious results show that in Great Lakes waters under Michigan’s jurisdiction, almost 100,000 turbines could be constructed offshore, and they could generate over 300,000 MW worth of energy. Of course, practical considerations dictate that the number will be far fewer, but even a fraction would generate a vast amount of power—300,000 MW is nearly equivalent to the energy output of 300 nuclear facilities like that of DTE’s Fermi 2 reactor in Detroit.

Wind turbines in the Great Lakes have significant advantages over their land-based counterparts. Wind speeds over the lakes are stronger and more consistent, and developers can avoid many political and regulatory pitfalls that occur with the land purchase process and adherence to patchwork local zoning laws. Larger and more efficient turbines can be constructed with minimal aesthetic and visual impact to coastal residents.

Offshore turbine construction and maintenance will create in-state jobs for contractors, installers and suppliers—taking a chunk out of the $24 billion that annually leaves our state to purchase fuels like coal.

Lastly, the fresh water contained in our Great Lakes also holds one considerable advantage over the waters off of the coast of Europe or the United States. Turbines within the Great Lakes do not face the tremendous engineering challenges that result from the corrosive nature of saltwater.

Despite this vast potential, significant barriers to development remain. A primary issue relates to cost. John Sarver, supervisor at the Michigan Energy Office and chairman of the Wind Working Group, stated that capital costs for offshore turbines could be 50–100% higher than their onshore counterparts. Sarver adds that there are “a number of issues” that the State of Michigan must research prior to the siting of any turbine in the Great Lakes. Some additional concerns that must be researched include the impact of offshore turbine installations upon marine and avian species, fishing and recreational activities, and coastal aesthetics.

Designing guidelines to properly permit and regulate offshore wind projects will be a significant task for policymakers and administrators. The Offshore Wind Working Group is a collaboration of state agencies and wind experts who are working to minimize these obstacles by conducting research and consulting with other Great Lakes states regarding their policies. The Michigan Environmental Council has participated in the Wind Working Group and expects to continue its work to ensure a clean energy future for Michigan.

Michigan is not the only state moving forward. Ohio has moved steadily toward offshore wind in Lake Erie, just off of the coast from the City of Cleveland in Cuyahoga County. Officials are currently looking to develop further feasibility studies and construct between a 5 MW and 20 MW offshore wind demonstration project. Ontario, however, is probably poised to be the first state or province to develop an offshore wind farm. After lifting its offshore wind ban earlier this year, Ontario has moved swiftly toward conducting environmental assessments and issuing guidelines for offshore wind permitting.

With aggressive offshore wind power, Michigan has the potential to meet and surpass our renewable energy goals, while curbing our state’s dependence on fossil fuels.

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