Several U.S. coastal states are in a heated race to build America's first offshore wind farm. Is landlocked Michigan throwing its hat in the ring, too?
The Michigan Great Lakes Wind Council is recommending a change in state law that would permit placement of wind turbines six miles or more off its freshwater shores.
The proposal is just a first step. But if regulatory hurdles are swiftly resolved, it may help Michigan become the first state to generate power from the heart of its wind-blessed Great Lakes.
The council, an advisory body within the state Department of Energy, was established by Governor Jennifer Granholm through executive order in February 2009. Its charge was to look at the possibility of putting turbines in the lakes and identify ways to get them "prudently sited." In Governor Granholm's words:
"The availability, consistency, and velocity of wind in the Great Lakes make their waters uniquely attractive to wind energy developers seeking to build offshore wind energy systems - but we want to make sure we are prudent in this process of approval."
A full report from the council is due to the governor by September 1, 2009. Its leaked recommendations so far suggest a need for urgent action.
The study is based on the premise that the Great Lakes have enormous wind energy and economic potential, especially Michigan's portion.
Approximately 40 percent of the Great Lakes fall under Michigan's jurisdiction. A Michigan State University report released in September 2008 revealed the state could generate 321,936 MW of electricity from the winds blowing off those waters, assuming no restrictions are put in place. That's roughly one-third of all the electricity now generated nationwide.
If a shoreline distance of six miles is maintained and an installation depth of up to 60 meters is permitted, that potential capacity drops to 36,337 MW. Up to a depth of 30 meters at that distance, the figure drops further, to 9,481 MW.
But even the lower numbers would represent a substantial increase in Michigan's power generating capacity. The state currently has 12,331 MW of continuous capacity annually.
Importantly, the report notes that tapping the Great Lakes for its wind power could have advantages over harnessing gusts from saltwater coasts. From the MSU study:
"The degree of difficulty in implementing wind projects offshore in the Great Lakes is significantly less than in ocean or saltwater applications...Project implementation costs for Great Lakes application will likely be lower than in marine applications."
Michigan is still in the fact-gathering stages of its offshore windmill pursuits. And the government's prime concern right now is creating the policies for siting turbines and for speeding up a typically glacial approvals process.
The council is looking to Europe for guidance.
Nearly all of the world's roughly 1,400 MW of offshore wind in production is located off Europe's waters. Industry estimates suggest that by 2020, between 20,000 MW and 40,000 MW of offshore capacity will be up and running off the EU's shores.
"Europeans have paid for their lessons learned (and North Americans can be the beneficiaries)," wrote the Great Lakes Wind Council in its 2009 report, Planning for Offshore Wind Developments in Michigan's Great Lakes.
Denmark and Britain have more than 80 percent of all offshore wind development in the world, and have clearly learned to leap the regulatory hurdles. Says the council:
"These two countries are unique in that they have evolved effective planning programs to identify preferred offshore areas before site leasing commences. Notably, Britain and Denmark have also created simplified 'one-stop' permit processing authorities to streamline site development."
Adopting Europe's strategies could help Michigan overcome long-standing barriers to scaling up its wind power capacity, both off- and onshore.
In terms of onshore wind capacity, the state ranks dead last last among Great Lakes states, according to the American Wind Power Association. Illinois has 96 turbines, with at least 600 more proposed or under construction. Minnesota has more than 700. And Michigan has just 100, although 24 commercial wind projects have been identified, representing some 2,700 megawatts of capacity.
Why so little actual growth? One reason lies in Michigan's antiquated electricity transmission infrastructure. It can't yet accommodate the added load. The other is "Not in My Backyard" activism, or NIMBYism.
Case in point is the 30-turbine farm in Oceana County on the state's western coastline that remained on the drawing board for years because of NIMBY resistance, the Michigan Messenger reports.
As an antidote to NIMBY, the Michigan Great Lakes Wind Council is also recommending amending Public Act 325, which would allow offshore waters to be included in the public trust. This would give the state authority to override local opposition.
Certainly something has to budge in the Wolverine state. Michigan is chasing a renewable energy standard of 10 percent by 2015. That could grow to 30 percent by 2025 if a recent legislative package unveiled by House Democrats, business leaders and clean energy advocates becomes law. Right now, just 3 percent of electricity generated in Michigan comes from renewable sources.
If Michigan can plant the first turbine in Great Lakes waters, it could be a big starting point for meeting its clean energy goals, for establishing national leadership on offshore wind farms and for building a new energy economy in the state, just as the auto industry, the foundation of Michigan, dies off.
But competition to be first might get fierce among the Great Lakes states.
In April, the New York Power Authority (NYPA), the largest state-owned power supplier in the U.S., announced a major initiative for the potential development of wind power projects in the waters of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. The plans were labeled the "first freshwater offshore wind projects" by the American Wind Energy Association.
Several projects in Wisconsin are being discussed. And Ohio has created a task force of its own. In that state, construction of a two- to 10-turbine pilot project in Lake Erie may even begin in two years or less. As an Ohio official told the Washington Post:
"We believe we are in a race to be the first in the Great Lakes."
Whichever state gets in the water first and wins the race, the entire Great Lakes region stands to benefit as a potentially massive manufacturing epicenter of offshore wind power.