Late last month, the Obama administration and five Great Lakes states signed a memorandum of agreement aimed at improving the chances for development of offshore wind farms in the lakes. That's a promising development, one in which the other Great Lakes states should join.
The benefits of the so-called green economy and of wind power as an alternative to fossil fuel power are sometimes overblown. But offshore wind plays a key role in Europe's power grid, and although it's just getting off the ground in the United States, it has significant potential in all our offshore areas, including the Great Lakes.
That potential could yield benefits in job growth, energy independence and less reliance on fossil fuels such as coal to power our homes and businesses. Furthermore, winds on the Great Lakes are more powerful and reliable than on land, enhancing the ability of wind farms to produce more reliable power. Why not connect that wind potential to the major population centers that sit on the shore of the lakes?
The Sierra Club argues that a typical 500-megawatt wind farm would generate enough electricity to power 280,000 homes and create 10,000 construction jobs and 400 permanent jobs. Relying more on wind and less on coal also could remove significant amounts of carbon dioxide emissions. What's not to like here?
While there will be some siting issues involving migratory birds and fisheries and opposition from people who don't want their views of the lakes marred by turbines, those issues can be resolved with careful planning, something the memorandum is specifically designed to enhance, and new technology. Researchers at the University of Michigan, for example, are working with a Seattle-based company to develop floating turbines that could be placed deeper in the lakes, out of sight of the shore.
In Wisconsin, the Walker administration has not yet shown itself to be particularly friendly to renewable energy sources such as wind. Early on, it pushed to change new siting rules from the Public Service Commission for land-based wind farms. The new rules eventually went into effect anyway, but the delay created by the Walker administration jeopardized some wind projects and the jobs that came with them.
Nor has the administration signed on to the memorandum of agreement, which seeks to better coordinate wind farm projects and streamline the process for developing them. Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie has said that the PSC "studied the regulatory hurdles to developing offshore wind projects a few years ago. Therefore, the MOU doesn't do anything we can't already do and do on our own timeline given Wisconsin's unique energy status." And the governor has said he will consider projects as they are presented.
But coordinating studies and projects with the Great Lakes states (Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and New York) as well as the 10 federal agencies that signed the memorandum of agreement strikes us as a more efficient way to develop offshore wind farms, and reap the potential of clean power.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says that "unlocking the Great Lakes' offshore wind energy resources could yield tremendous economic and environmental benefits throughout the region and has the potential to produce more than 700 gigawatts of energy from offshore wind, about one-fifth of the total offshore wind potential in the U.S."
Developing offshore wind is in line with what the Obama administration calls its "all of the above" approach to a national energy strategy. That approach includes increasing domestic energy production in traditional areas such as increased production of the nation's oil and natural gas resources, as well as construction of the first nuclear power plant in 30 years.
All of the above also needs to include energy from renewable sources such as wind and solar, which the administration estimates will double by the end of the president's first term.
Although the administration and Congress still need to develop a real national energy plan, the memorandum of agreement on offshore wind can play an important role in such a plan. But it needs a few more signers.
REPRINTED FROM THE MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL