The need to move away from dirty sources of energy and to generate energy through clean, renewable sources is increasingly recognized as a critical step in preserving the environment. In the past few years, Evanston has taken the lead in putting a focus on harnessing the wind blowing over Lake Michigan to produce clean, renewable energy.
"The wind blowing over the Great Lakes, including Lake Michigan, produces some of the most powerful and consistent concentrations of energy in the United States," says a report, "Lake Michigan Offshore Wind Energy," issued by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) in June, with input from the Lake Michigan Offshore Wind Energy Advisory Council.
"Public and private interest in harnessing this natural resource for public benefit is growing for several reasons," says the report. Some of the reasons include the Great Lakes’ location near metropolitan centers, a concern over fossil-fuel power emissions, and the reduction of costs to generate electricity from wind.
The Illinois legislature formed the Advisory Council to assist IDNR in preparing the report, the purpose of which is to evaluate potential impacts from wind farm projects and to make recommendations for needed legislation and regulations. Four Evanston residents, including State Representative Robyn Gabel, served on the council.
The 56-page report contains many recommendations that would govern the procedure for a developer to proceed with a wind farm and regulate the location, environmental impact, marine impact, and the design, construction, operation and decommissioning of a wind farm.
Wind energy from lake projects holds "tremendous promise" for Illinois, said Evanston resident Jack Darin, director of the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club and member of the Advisory Council.
"This report contains the beginnings of a road map," said Mr. Darin. "It doesn’t pave the way to a wind farm project. It identifies some of the major issues for the State to consider. It’s a very thoughtful look at how we’d begin to plan for wind energy. It identifies some of the concerns we’ll have to be very mindful of to proceed.
"We are several major steps away from any actual construction in the lake," he added.
IDNR’s Wind Farm Report
The report recommends that any future offshore wind farm be developed using a two-step process. First, an applicant must obtain a lease of a proposed site in order to conduct a site assessment in accordance with an approved plan. Second, IDNR and other permitting agencies would review and evaluate the data obtained through the site assessment, conduct public meetings and request additional studies or assessments if necessary to determine whether to approve a lease and permits to develop and operate a wind farm.
The report recommends that Illinois provide a framework for early and effective public participation in the process. "Early and effective public engagement is critical to the success of any offshore wind project," says the report.
The report also says the State should identify areas that are favorable, acceptable and unacceptable for wind energy development. "Setting clear boundaries for areas closed to wind development can make public hearings less contentious and provide certainty for the public and private developers," says the report.
The report also recommends that criteria be developed in four general areas relating to environmental factors, marine factors, public infrastructure and transportation/security.
Some potential criteria may include setbacks or buffers. As an example, the report notes that Michigan has a six-mile setback from the shore to reduce visual impacts; a six-mile buffer for recreational boating; a buffer of five miles from harbors/marinas and bird migration routes; a buffer of one mile from established shipping lanes; and a maximum depth of 35 meters.
Other recommended criteria deal with the need for suitable wind resources; connections to the transmission grid; protecting existing water supply infrastructures and other public infrastructures; transporting the equipment to the site; the design and construction of the wind farm; economic feasibility and a plan for decommissioning the wind farm.
Evanston resident Jeff Smith, a member of the Advisory Council and of Citizens’ Greener Evanston, said, "The consensus of the Council was about laying out publicly any hurdles a developer will have to overcome.
"Two things are being done – some research is going on now – spatial mapping to determine which points on the lake are not feasible, such as fishing areas, too-shallow areas, the route of the Mackinac boat race. Most places that would be feasible would be far offshore and visible only about one out of every three days. There’s not a lot of lake you can put a wind park on."
He said the time frame is 10 years away.
Joel Brammeier, president and chief executive officer of Alliance for the Great Lakes, said, "There are a lot of open questions as to whether offshore wind at scale is the best way to meet our energy needs. There are questions about the environmental impact, decommissioning and, essentially, a permanent use of the lake bottom to create energy.
"We are open to pilot approaches to offshore wind to demonstrate whether off-shore wind-farms are feasible," Mr. Brammeier said. "The one in Cuyahoga County [near Cleveland]" seems a good one "for piloting on a small scale and is designed to evaluate whether a scale-up wind farm is possible.
"There are a lot of issues that are only going to be tested when a live, feasible approach comes on line," Mr. Brammeier said. "It is one thing to talk about it, another thing [to come up with the money to build it]. Most proposals are ‘drawing-board’ proposals.
"I think the states are asking the right questions," Mr. Brammeier added.
Rep. Gabel, who sponsored the legislation that created the Council and that led to the Report, said, "The Report was an essential first step in looking at the possibility of establishing a wind farm. It identifies certain criteria, takes a look at lessons learned from other states, and recommends needed legislation to move forward."
She said she plans to introduce a bill in January 2013 and hopes it will pass within the next two years after being considered by necessary committees. Any implementing regulations would be developed after that.
"It’s a process," said Rep. Gabel. "The science is rapidly changing. We’ll have to see where the technology takes us."