Michigan may harness offshore wind if lame duck lawmakers act

by Liz Pacheco

Michigan has a bill pending that could lead to offshore wind in the Great Lakes.

Michigan may be one important step closer to offshore wind energy by the end of the year.

In early November, state Rep. Dan Scripps, D-Leland introduced a bill to regulate wind farms in Michigan’s Great Lakes waters. The legislation proposes that the state fully oversee offshore wind projects—from initial proposals from developers, through approval and construction.

Proponents say it ensures that Michigan controls who, where and how offshore wind projects are developed.

“If we can put together and have enacted a comprehensive framework, we’ll be first in the Great Lakes region,” said Scripps. “There is a huge advantage in doing this for support for onshore job potential. If we don’t, and someone else beats, we’ll have lost the opportunity from an investment and jobs standpoint.”

Both Republican and Democratic representatives support the bill. Some advocates are hopeful it can pass in the lame duck session before the new governor and many new legislators take office in January.

“The governor wants to try to get this done to have on her desk to sign it,” Scripps said. “A lot of the pieces are in place, a lot of the questions answered…I know there’s going to be a big push.”

The bill will be discussed Nov. 30 when the House Energy and Technology Committee meets.

Offshore wind faces other development hurdles

It could make Michigan the first state with comprehensive offshore wind development legislation. But even if it passed, offshore wind farms likely are far in Michigan’s future.

Before wind towers can be built right in the Great Lakes, “a lot has to be done to get the cost for offshore wind down; a lot of leasing and permitting has to be in place,” said John Sarver, co-chair of the Great Lakes Wind Collaborative. Speaking theoretically, “let’s assume we will have legislation in place by the end of the year. There will be years of process, studies and evaluation before construction will start.”

These five Wind Resource Areas are at least 6 miles off shore, away from shipping lanes and sensative habitat and are covered in 148 feet of water or less. Click to enlarge. Photo: Michigan Great Lakes Wind Council

The bill is based on the policy recommendations made in an Oct. 1 report by the Michigan Great Lakes Wind Council, an advisory board created by Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm in September 2009 to explore the power source.

Michigan owns 40 percent of the water surface —more than any other state in the region. This makes the Great Lakes a huge untapped resource for the state.

Michigan State University Land Policy Institute [in a 2009 study] identified 322,000 megawatts of potential, Sarver said.

One megawatt is enough electricity for 225 to 300 homes, giving the Great Lakes the potential to provide energy to millions of Michigan homes.

The council’s report presented a more realistic outlook and recommended the most favorable areas for Michigan offshore wind projects.

“Our original charge was to find the most favorable and the least favorable [locations],” said Michael Klepinger, the council’s staff director. “That language was inserted there on purpose, so we wouldn’t stand around arguing about all the stuff in the middle.”

Strong winds, sensitive habitats, shipping channels help define development sites

Five areas were identified as priority places for offshore wind. All are at least six miles offshore and avoid waters not fit for wind towers, like shipping lanes and sensitive fish and wildlife habitats.

The report also polled community support for offshore wind and recommended legislation for leasing and permitting lake bottoms to offshore wind developers.  

“The government made it clear to the council that they were to look at the statewide public need,” said Klepinger, “not just the needs of the people sitting on the beach or the needs of people sitting in high rises in Detroit.”

More than 575 residents attended the five public meetings held all over the state; 480 participated in the surveys. Nearly two-thirds of these participants showed support for commercial offshore wind farms with the understanding they would help meet the state’s renewable energy portfolio. That’s a law requiring that 10 percent of Michigan’s electricity must come from renewable energy by 2015.

Those opposed to offshore wind worry about impacts on tourism, habitats, property values and the use of the lakes for private gain. Problems such as noise,were also concerns.

Other states also covet Great Lakes wind potential

Michigan isn’t the only Great Lakes state working to develop offshore wind projects.

In New York, the state power authority has created a timeline for wind tower construction starting in 2013. Power would be produced in 2015-2016. Unlike Michigan, New York won’t need to pass legislation to facilitate their projects, although they will still need to work with federal regulators such as the Army Corps of Engineers.

In Illinois, a grassroots organization has sparked the discussion on offshore wind energy. Earlier this month a task force under the nonprofit group Citizens for A Greener Evanston received permission from the city council to review offshore wind projects for Lake Michigan, including two submitted proposals.

Despite already receiving proposals, “we know we’re not going to be the first” in offshore wind power from the Great Lakes, said Kevin Glynn, a member of the Renewable Energy Resources Task Force with Greener Evanston.

However, not being first gives Evanston the opportunity to learn from its neighbors.  “We’re trying to study what’s happening in the other states and…what’s been going through the legislative,” said Glynn. “We told [the city council] to copy what Ohio and Michigan are doing” in terms of legislation.

Cooperation among states has been an important part of offshore wind development in the Great Lakes.  The Great Lakes Wind Collaborative was established to facilitate discussion and Sarver said that states and provinces have been talking for years, both about offshore and onshore possibilities.

While offshore wind energy is still years in the future, those involved in the projects are excited about its potential. “Everyone benefits,” said Sarver. “There’s an advantage getting away from heavy dependence on coal power and diverse resource base.”



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Additional Links:

The proposed bill

How offshore wind farm approval works

Another view via Muskegon Chronicle