Gov. Pat Quinn signed the Lake Michigan Wind Energy Act earlier this month, but don’t expect wind farms to pop up in the lake anytime soon.
The bill, sponsored by State Rep. Robyn Gabel (D-Evanston) and Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston), authorizes the state to conduct further research on which parts of Lake Michigan are suitable for offshore wind energy development before any leases or permits are issued for such projects.
The recent measure piggybacks on the recommendations cited in an Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) report released last year that first explored the issue after the state set up the Lake Michigan Offshore Wind Energy Council in 2011.
Under the new measure, IDNR is now tasked with developing an offshore wind “siting matrix” to identify preferred or prohibited development areas in the lake based on existing wildlife, infrastructure, transportation and other environmental factors. IDNR is expected to use its own funds for the study, which is projected to take at least two years.
Within this two-year research window, devices will be installed on the lake to track wind currents, peak hours and other factors, explained Gabel’s legislative assistant Matt Trewartha.
But that’s just the beginning, acording to experts.
“We are light-years away from putting wind turbines in Lake Michigan,” said Kevin Borgia, public policy manager at Wind on the Wires, a St. Paul, Minnesota-based group that works on wind power issues in the Midwest.
The state of Illinois owns the lakebed, so it needs to have some sort of leasing process in place for any potential wind energy projects, which up until more recently had never been considered, Trewartha explained.
Once IDNR’s siting matrix is finalized, the department could grant permits and site leases for those interested in assessing areas of the lake for wind energy projects. Those leases may later be converted for the construction and operation of an offshore wind park. IDNR also has to create a regulatory toolkit for potential developers that spells out the necessary permitting-process information.
This leasing and permitting system, however, will likely not be ready until 2020 at the earliest, Trewartha said.
“We’re still quite a ways [away] for this,” he stressed.
The new bill also sets up an Offshore Wind Energy Economic Development Task Force, which is charged with evaluating potential economic and policy models for offshore wind energy. The unpaid task force will also propose ways in which Illinois could purchase and sell the power from offshore wind projects.
Ohio appears to be in the lead when it comes to wind turbines in the Great Lakes. A project is in the works for six wind turbines to be installed seven miles north of Cleveland in Lake Erie by 2017. The project would be the first fresh-water offshore wind farm in the United States.
But there’s no need for Illinois to rush.
People aren’t lining up at the moment to build offshore wind projects in Lake Michigan for a number of reasons, but mainly because the costs are just too high, Borgia explained.
Borgia said Illinois’ coast is also different than the coast of Cleveland and Michigan, a state that is also steps ahead of Illinois in identifying areas suitable for wind energy sites in the Great Lakes.
The prospect of offshore wind energy in Illinois has garnered enthusiasm from certain environmental groups, such as Citizens’ Greener Evanston and the Illinois Sierra Club. But the private-sector companies experienced in building offshore wind projects in other parts of the U.S. and Europe don’t have a desire right now to build wind turbines off the coast of Illinois in Lake Michigan, Borgia said.
“There’s not really a way to make offshore wind economically feasible right now in this particular location,” he explained.
Because Illinois’ current onshore wind opportunities and the state’s power markets and electricity costs are cheaper than offshore wind farming in the area would be at the moment, it’s “very, very unlikely to see any interest from the wind-energy sector in building offshore wind off the cost of Illinois anytime soon,” Borgia continued.
This doesn’t mean, however, that offshore wind energy isn’t cost-effective in other places or that offshore wind projects in the Great Lakes are not feasible, he noted.
Onshore wind energy in Illinois, however, is the cheaper option for the state. It's also a better avenue to take in order to make a more immediate shift to renewable energy sources, Borgia said.
For the past five years, Illinois has been ranked among the top five states when it comes to wind energy growth, generating 20,000 jobs in Illinois since 2007, according to the Illinois Sierra Club. Illinois has emerged as a wind energy leader due to the state's strong winds near demand centers, like Chicago, and the necessary electrical infrastructure needed to move the power. Most of Illinois' wind farms are located in central and northern Illinois.
With that being said, that doesn’t mean the new Lake Michigan Wind Energy Act is not necessary, he said. At the moment, the state does not have a thorough understanding of which parts of the lake contain hazards that need to be avoided or where sensitive marine habitats may be located.
“It’s worth studying this kind of thing ... Before anybody starts exploring opportunities in any kind of a serious way, it’s good to have this information,” Borgia noted.
Back in May, before the full Senate passed the Lake Michigan Wind Energy Act, Biss told the News-Gazette’s editor and columnist Tom Kacich that his constituents “want this bill, and I have lots of folks in Evanston who very badly want turbines in the lake.”
The senator acknowledged, however, that this idea might make some people “very nervous.”
"This bill isn't going to put turbines in the lake,” the lawmaker said in the interview. “It's going to set about a process. That process will have time for lots of public comment, lots of technological improvements, lots of time for change in the marketplace. If there's a turbine in the lake 10 years from now that will be a very, very swift timeline."