Human beings have been turning the power of the wind into energy for over a thousand years.
Across about 100 countries, wind is harnessed — often with the familiar, sometimes elegant technology of wind turbines. Increasingly, those “windmills” are in clusters offshore, usually in an ocean; the boom in offshore is especially helping European countries meet renewable energy targets. Offshore wind is really just getting going in the U.S, but states along the East Coast are making big bets on offshore wind.
Now, officials in Ohio have signed on to an offshore wind project on Lake Erie. There are some conditions, including time of day restrictions. But if completed, the six windmills planned off the coast of Cleveland would be the first of their kind on the Great Lakes. And the technology could again gain interest further west on the Great Lakes.
Where’s Illinois’ offshore wind farm?
Here in Illinois, the talk about offshore wind on Lake Michigan was centered in the North Shore suburb of Evanston, and some people from Evanston are still pursuing offshore wind for Illinois today.
The story begins in 2010. At that time, the city of Evanston was looking seriously into offshore wind as part of its overall climate action strategy.
Evanston doesn’t have open space for a big solar project, but it has a good stretch of open lakefront, so offshore wind looked worth pursuing. Then-Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl formed a group called “The Mayor’s Offshore Wind Farm Committee.” It was made up of residents who ranged from a middle school teacher to the ex-director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. There was an attorney, an engineer, an architect, an environmentalist.
The committee asked for proposals around an offshore wind concept from wind developers, and two responded. There was a wide range of reactions to what the two companies suggested for the committee. One member of the working group didn’t want to partner with either of the developers. Another didn’t want to increase costs to Evanston businesses. One committee member had safety and maintenance concerns.
The environmentalist on Evanston’s Wind Farm Committee was Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club. Ultimately, Darin recalled, most committee members remained interested in offshore wind, but after a year of study he said they came to the conclusion “that offshore wind was viable in Lake Michigan, but for infrastructure and economic reasons Evanston couldn’t do it itself.”
Offshore wind had some serious requirements that made it next to impossible for Evanston. First, where do you plug in the turbines?
Evanston didn’t have a suitable place to plug a wind farm into a power grid. Most wind installations try to hold down infrastructure costs by plugging into the grid where transformers and high voltage transmission lines are already set up. Evanston doesn’t have an existing power plant on its lakeshore to plug into. Another thing Evanston didn’t have was a port to assemble portions of the windmills and haul them out into the lake; in the report, there was talk of a “staging area” on the lakefront. But the assemblage is extensive and requires special facilities at an actual port. And on the economic front, Evanston alone couldn’t guarantee enough customers to kickstart development and overcome high upfront costs.
Getting the legal authority to build offshore wind in the lake is possibly the toughest challenge. The people of Illinois own the lake bed. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources would have to grant a permit. A difficult process all by itself (there are many environmental hurdles), the project would have to survive a “public trust” challenge to the permit. Public trust doctrine contends that waterways are open and free to all and cannot be appropriated for private interests.
Joel Brammeier with the Alliance for the Great Lakes says “Illinois has a particularly rigorous and strong backing of the public trust doctrine.” Indeed. The predecessor organization to the Alliance, the Lake Michigan Federation, used public trust doctrine to successfully sue the state for granting Loyola University 18.5 acres of Lake Michigan for landfill. Illinois courts have ruled in favor of a public roadway, a public water treatment plant, public exposition facilities and public football stadium. Courts, though, have also ruled against private railroad facilities and steel plants. When it comes to Lake Michigan, Brammeier said any attempt to put wind turbines in Lake Michigan would probably be decided by the courts, and “it’s a high bar.”
There’s a string of familiar public objections to offshore wind. In Cleveland’s case, a recreational boating association registered objections. Some birding and bat groups ended up getting conditions put into Cleveland’s approval process where the windmills would get turned off at night in the spring and summer (very possibly a deal breaker). Finally, there’s the familiar complaint that windmills detract from the skyline. But advocates for offshore wind point to a poll in New Jersey that showed when people are shown pictures of turbines, or “windmills,” at various points offshore, the farther away they are, the more acceptable the idea becomes. For some perspective, Darin of the Sierra Club said when windmills are 6 miles out, “they’re about the size of your thumbnail if you hold your arm out.”
The case for offshore wind
With all the hassles around offshore wind, why bother? Land-based wind is cheaper, and solar in Illinois has huge potential.
The answer is the big role offshore wind could play in the clean energy mix. While the U.S. is just getting started, there’s a couple dozen countries that are using offshore wind as a key component to reach climate commitments. Britain now gets 11% of its energy from offshore wind and predicts its capacity will triple over the next 10 years. Ireland just fast tracked seven wind farms that will help it reach its goal of 70% renewable by 2030.
European countries have made offshore part of their climate goals and subsidize them strongly. Now states on the Atlantic coast in this country are beginning to do it, too. New York state passed legislation to support the development of enough offshore wind to power 6 million homes by 2035. Massachusetts is working on an Atlantic wind farm that should generate enough power for 400,000 homes.
Illinois is way behind on its renewable goals. Illinois has legal goals of 25% renewables by 2025. The state still hasn’t cracked 10% renewables, and land-based wind makes up almost all of Illinois’ 8% renewable portfolio. The governor has rhetorically committed to 100% renewable by 2050 and proposed energy reforms in the legislature target that goal.
As governor, I will be committed to putting Illinois on track to acquiring 25% or more of our energy from clean renewable sources by 2025 and 100% of our energy from renewable sources by 2050. https://t.co/F9bDVtNiaS— JB Pritzker (@JBPritzker) March 8, 2018
The state would find it a lot easier to hit its renewable target with offshore wind in the mix. Offshore wind also has the advantage of being close to where the users are. Land-based wind is popping up around the state, but travels far to reach Cook County, for instance.
Encouraged by Evanston’s effort and other activity around the Great Lakes, in 2011, the Illinois legislature created a Lake Michigan Offshore Wind Advisory Council. Its job was to work with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources on a report that gives the department methods for evaluating an offshore wind permit on Lake Michigan. Next, the legislature passed the Lake Michigan Wind Energy Act in 2013 to begin to unravel the economic challenges.
Former Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration chose not to appoint a task force to examine those economic challenges, but the idea has new life with the Pritzker administration. Darin is on the new Offshore Wind Energy Economic Development Task Force that the governor established late last year. The Alliance for the Great Lakes is also part of that effort. So is the mayor of Waukegan, and for good reason. Waukegan is a city that has a port and a couple of power plant capacity places to plug into. Another location that meets the port/plug requirement is the Calumet Harbor area near the Illinois-Indiana border. Both locations need economic development. The committee hasn’t met yet because of the COVID-19 crisis, but after it does, it has a year to develop a report on ways to overcome some of the economic hurdles to offshore wind. Darin thinks overcoming the economic hurdles lies in the commitment by both Chicago and Evanston to 100% renewable energy. He thinks those commitments could forge a pathway to the development of offshore wind.
Brammeier of Alliance of the Great Lakes said they’re keeping an open mind about offshore wind and he recognizes climate change as a huge threat to the Great Lakes. “But, “ he said, “I’ve yet to see a compelling vision that checks all the boxes and shows that this is a sustainable approach for the Great Lakes.”
Brammeier wants answers about disposal: “You don’t want a bunch of rusting hulks in the lake 30 years from now,” he said. And he weighs the value of the lake as an aesthetic resource: “Do we really want to look at windmills off 63rd street beach for 3% of our energy mix?”
Chris Wissemann lives in Evanston, and was on the “Mayor’s Wind Farm Report” from 2010. Wisseman also served on the advisory panel that helped create the state’s report on offshore wind. He’s now the CEO of Diamond Offshore Wind Development, a Mitsubishi-owned firm that works in Europe but has an eye on the Great Lakes. He said proponents of offshore wind in the Great Lakes “have to show local, serious stakeholders that it can work here.” He said what’s needed is what he calls a “pathway to responsible development.” Possibly, a pilot project near an industrial harbor, and getting good data on what happens with birds and fish 5 miles out into the lake.
But Wissemann thinks offshore wind could easily provide a third of Illinois energy alongside land-based wind farms and solar. For his part, Darin thinks there’s a “few nuclear reactors worth of energy” waiting in Lake Michigan.
Many observers believe Cleveland’s offshore wind project won’t move forward because of the restrictions imposed. The developer was stunned by the decision and called it “not an approval.”
Darin said that leaves the door open for Illinois to be the first offshore wind development in the Great Lakes — a good thing because it would mean investment and jobs in Illinois. Special kinds of port facilities and ships are required, and that infrastructure also might be used for other projects. Darin and Wissemann think 5 years is about the earliest a project could get off the ground.
To Darin, that timeline seems too long. He points to 10 years as about the amount of time we all have to avert the worst consequences of climate change.