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Windmills on the Water? 'Potential is high' for offshore wind power

The windswept Great Lakes could play host to an industry some believe could help revive Michigan's comatose economy and fulfill state and national mandates for cleaner, renewable energy. ...Nothing's imminent, but state and federal environmental regulators are preparing for the possibility that utility developers may want to harness wind power from Lake Michigan and the other big lakes.

TRAVERSE CITY -- The windswept Great Lakes could play host to an industry some believe could help revive Michigan's comatose economy and fulfill state and national mandates for cleaner, renewable energy.

Offshore, wind-powered electricity generation -- huge wind turbines in the Great Lakes -- is a notion that's more than hot air, said experts who point to similar projects elsewhere in the world.

Nothing's imminent, but state and federal environmental regulators are preparing for the possibility that utility developers may want to harness wind power from Lake Michigan and the other big lakes.

"There's been tremendous interest for some time now, in wind energy and solar. At any time, somebody could walk through the door and say they want to do this," said John Sarver, a supervisor with the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth.

"We need some time in a deliberate, thoughtful way to consider the issues and move the process along."

Planning for Great Lakes wind turbines won't be a breeze. Regulators must consider a host of potential barriers, ranging from shipping lanes, sensitive aquatic habitat, historic shipwreck sites, recreational and commercial fishing needs,... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

TRAVERSE CITY -- The windswept Great Lakes could play host to an industry some believe could help revive Michigan's comatose economy and fulfill state and national mandates for cleaner, renewable energy.

Offshore, wind-powered electricity generation -- huge wind turbines in the Great Lakes -- is a notion that's more than hot air, said experts who point to similar projects elsewhere in the world.

Nothing's imminent, but state and federal environmental regulators are preparing for the possibility that utility developers may want to harness wind power from Lake Michigan and the other big lakes.

"There's been tremendous interest for some time now, in wind energy and solar. At any time, somebody could walk through the door and say they want to do this," said John Sarver, a supervisor with the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth.

"We need some time in a deliberate, thoughtful way to consider the issues and move the process along."

Planning for Great Lakes wind turbines won't be a breeze. Regulators must consider a host of potential barriers, ranging from shipping lanes, sensitive aquatic habitat, historic shipwreck sites, recreational and commercial fishing needs, transportation corridors, migratory bird and bat routes and areas subject to tribal and other treaty concerns.

But environmentalists and some lakefront residents say wind energy is an ideal technology to help reduce the country's dependence on fossil fuels, despite potentially disrupted lake views and some likely ill effects to fish and wildlife.

A host of state, federal and tribal agencies will weigh in on any proposed Great Lakes wind project, part of a required public review. Complexity aside, governmental and private interests are driven by the incredible potential to derive low-impact energy from the blustery Great Lakes.

It's an untapped resource literally blowing in the wind, experts say.

'Potential quite high'

The Great Lakes generate greater wind strengths than many Midwest regions, presenting a unique opportunity to pull that energy out of thin air.

A study of Michigan's offshore wind potential published late last year contends the state could elevate its economic profile among U.S. states by tapping wind energy. Michigan could generate as much as 321,936 instant megawatts on average from offshore wind, a figure that decreases if wind towers are built closer to shorelines, according to a study by the Land Policy Institute at Michigan State University.

Most coal-fired power plants generate between 125 and 1,000 megawatts.

"The potential is quite, quite high. The best wind in Michigan is actually offshore," said Stephen Harsh, an MSU resource economics professor. "There's enough wind out there to take care of all the electric needs in Michigan and more."

It could become an obvious option, particularly if future U.S. energy policy tightens controls on carbon-based sources, Harsh said.

About 18 percent of U.S. export dollars currently are spent on energy, and replacing that with homegrown power will involve new energy generation technologies, including offshore wind, said Charles McKeown, an analyst at MSU's Land Policy Institute. McKeown was involved in the recent offshore wind potential study.

"You can actually pull dollars out of the air with this technology," he said. "We have good resources onshore, but when you combine that with offshore, we become one of the premiere states for wind power technology."

Michigan's onshore wind energy capabilities are 16,560 megawatts on average, according to the study.

The opportunity presents "tremendous potential" in re-developing Michigan's manufacturing industry with new technology through a resource "that's long been ignored, but can be captured," McKeown said.

A new wind-power industry would demand massive electrical grid infrastructure development to handle the new electricity source, he said.

"Sensible regulation will hopefully lead to sensible results," McKeown said.

Offshore proposals expected

Any potential wind turbine project in Michigan's Great Lakes will be regulated by both state and federal authorities: the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Trouble is, the state may not be quite ready to proceed, should an offshore wind proposal be submitted.

"The current statutes never considered any type of lease or use for a few miles offshore," said Tom Graf, a DEQ environmental quality specialist who last year participated in a hypothetical dry-run project for such proposals.

State and federal regulators worked several months last year to process two hypothetical offshore wind proposals, one in southern Lake Michigan and the other in Saginaw Bay. The final report said the state has an adequate permitting process for the myriad issues that must be considered with such proposals, but it could be streamlined.

"We have not heard from anybody with definitive plans at this time, but with the push for renewable energy and the current onshore wind activity, we expect offshore wind proposals to come," Graf said. "It's just a matter of reviewing current legislation and getting up to speed on how we'd consider anything offshore. There's a lot to be learned."

Great Lakes bottomland lease rates must be considered, as well as potential air rights leases, specifications for bottomland construction, environmental reviews in conjunction with a slew of other state and federal agencies, and coordination with shipping and air traffic regulators.

Those and other issues will be taken up by the newly formed Great Lakes Wind Council, created last month by Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

The council is charged with identifying criteria to review applications for offshore wind development, as well as locating the most favorable offshore areas for wind farms and those that should be off-limits. The governor ordered a full report be completed by Sept. 1.

State revenues have suffered badly this decade as Michigan's manufacturing sector ruptured, and that's no small matter in the offshore wind discussion. The Great Lakes could support a new frontier of industry, and businesses that want to set up shop on or above lake bottomlands will have to pay for the privilege.

"We'd be leasing public land and in the past we've leased public land for energy, like natural gas wells, or forestland for timber. People who use public resources pay state lease rates," said Sarver, of the state's economic growth department.

Marty Lagina, chief executive officer of Heritage Sustainable Energy in Traverse City, has a seat at the new wind council's table. He represents the wind energy development industry.

"We are supposed to look at the whole concept and societal concerns," Lagina said. "There's a big resource out there and we're going to find out if it can be accessed prudently and if so, how."

State authorities are trying to prepare for offshore wind farms, but the Corps is ready to review applications, officials said.

"If somebody applies, we'll process the application. Something could come in tomorrow," said Rachel Nys, a project manager in the Corps' regulatory office in Detroit.

Federal officials would consider proposed wind field location, infrastructure connections to shore, shipping activity, impacts to wildlife and established airplane routes, among other issues, she said.

Both state and federal regulators would independently consider any joint applications and permits would be required from both the DEQ and the Corps, Nys said.

Environmental concerns

There's sure to be a cost to birds, mammals and fish if towering wind turbines are allowed on the Great Lakes.

Migratory birds and bats can be struck and killed by large, turning blades. Sensitive fish spawning habitats could be impacted. Waterfront views may be altered.

"As we talk about these things, especially in Michigan, we need strong siting research for potential impacts to wildlife," said Russ Mason, wildlife division chief with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. "It's not a free lunch."

Bats -- beneficial for insect control -- are attracted to wind towers for unclear reasons and migratory bird patterns must be considered, he said.

Regulators could consider rules to halt offshore wind turbine operations during known migratory seasons, when birds use Michigan's shorelines as maps for north and south movement "if we want to be sensitive to wildlife," Mason said.

Wind turbines in the Great Lakes also could impact creatures living below the water's surface, experts said.

Lake trout spawning habitats could be ruled off-limits, since the species struggles to reproduce naturally; bans also could apply for any threatened or endangered species, said Todd Kalish, a DNR fishery biologist.

"But renewable energy is something we should pursue in the future," Kalish said.

Then there's another potential sticking point: the possibility that wind turbines could partially obstruct views along Michigan's west coast. Some lake lovers don't seem troubled by the notion.

"I think it would be a great thing. I know there are a lot of people concerned with visibility, though," said Bob Hawley, of Empire, a former Leelanau County commissioner. "Offshore, I don't know why anybody would complain, especially if it's out of view."

Kent Kelly, a Glen Arbor Township trustee, favors the concept of wind technology, but said some would object over aesthetics.

"Everybody loves them, but it's a not-in-my-backyard issue," Kelly said. "I think in time, people will look at them like they look at old farmhouses. I would assume offshore windmills would make a lot of sense."

Groups prefer wind over coal

Environmental groups voice support for offshore wind projects in Michigan.

Many believe benefits from a revamped renewable energy industry here far outweigh potential conflicts.

"The trade-offs are small in comparison with the other issues, such as carbon dioxide emissions, coal-fired power plants and mercury emissions," said Jan O'Connell, energy issues organizer for the Michigan Sierra Club. "I think the potential is great, especially with the technology changing the way it is."

Any potential environmental problems with offshore wind turbines could be mitigated and the time could be right to phase in renewable energy systems in Michigan, she said.

"If we go with coal-fired power plants, it's bleeding the money away from renewables and locking our state into 50 more years of coal-fired power, at the same time we're entering this new technology field of offshore wind," O'Connell said.

Michigan Environmental Council officials agree.

"We're in favor of it, but we recognize it has to be done right," said Hugh McDiarmid, spokesman for the nonprofit agency.

Offshore wind power will be an integral part of the state's renewable energy portfolio, even with some environmental and aesthetic concerns. The group favors more aggressive state policies to reduce coal power and increase renewable energies, McDiarmid said.

"That would include offshore wind," he said. "But right offshore at Sleeping Bear Dunes may not be the place to do it, and migratory bird paths should be avoided."

Wind turbines can be placed far enough from shore so they are not visible, both McDiarmid and O'Connell said.

Utilities focus onshore, for now

DTE Energy has 17,000 Michigan customers who opt to pay a little more each month for renewable energy.

The company currently buys much of its renewable energy, but intends to invest in wind projects to generate their own such sources.

"We have been preparing to ultimately construct our own wind farm. We have been for the last two years acquiring easements from landowners," said Len Singer, DTE spokesman.

The company has easements on more than 50,000 acres in the state's Thumb region, mostly in Huron County, what Singer described as "one of the best areas in Michigan for wind speeds and the ability to generate electricity." They intend to build and begin operating a wind farm there by 2012, he said.

DTE may one day look to offshore possibilities -- such as those that exist in European countries like Denmark, Holland and England -- but expects most of its wind power activities to be onshore in coming years, Singer said.

Consumers Energy is focused solely on onshore wind power, with easements on 36,000 acres for wind fields in Mason and Tuscola counties, officials said.

"We're going to build and own and operate about 450 megawatts of wind generation. It's a $1.2 billion capital investment," said Jeff Holyfield, Consumers spokesman. "We have no plans to develop anything offshore at this point. It's too speculative to say whether we will go offshore."

Traverse City Light & Power also has no offshore plans.

That city-owned utility already has one wind turbine near M-72 in Leelanau County, although it doesn't produce much power at that location, said Ed Rice, Light & Power executive director.

"It's not significant for us. It contributes less than one percent of our renewable energies," he said.

But a larger wind farm with 10 to 15 turbines is in the works near Charlevoix, plus a number of wood-burning biomass plants are planned around the region, Rice said.

Offshore wind turbines are not on the horizon for Light & Power, he said.

Heritage Sustainable Energy also wants to expand its existing onshore wind turbine operation near McBain. The company maintains a firm belief in the benefits of renewable wind power and offshore wind turbines could be a future interest to them, Lagina said.

"If it's going to be prudent and profitable to do so, we, along with other companies, would be interested in offshore wind," Lagina said.


Source: http://www.record-eagle.com...

MAR 1 2009
https://www.windaction.org/posts/19318-windmills-on-the-water-potential-is-high-for-offshore-wind-power
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