Wind farm in the Great Lakes? Big potential meets big opposition.

The windswept Great Lakes hold huge promise for wind power, experts say. But a plan for an offshore wind farm in Lake Michigan is raising local ire.

Richard Mertens
Proposals for a wind farm on the Great Lakes has some locals concerned. ‘We still need to find alternative forms of energy, but I’m not sure putting windmills … out in the lake is going to do it.’ says Juanita Pierman, village president, Pentwater, Mich.

Halfway up Lake Michigan's eastern shore, wooded bluffs rise next to dunes, ice-fringed winter beaches, and steel-gray water stretching as far as the eye can see.

Pentwater, a resort town whose year-round residents number fewer than 1,000, sits in the middle of some of the most prized lakefront in the region. So when a Norwegian-American company recently proposed putting up as many as 200 wind turbines in the water, many residents were appalled.

"People are very up in arms about this," says Juanita Pierman, Pentwater's village president. "We still need to find alternative forms of energy, but I'm not sure putting windmills two or three miles out in the lake is going to do it."

Until recently, most attention in the United States was focused on land-based wind power. But now it appears that offshore wind power is not far off, and some states and the province of Ontario are racing to bring wind power to the Great Lakes. They're spurred on by new requirements for renewable energy and the hope of green jobs.

The US Department of Energy rates the wind on the Great Lakes as "outstanding" in certain places. Overall, the DOE rates the wind on the Great Lakes as equal to or better than the wind on the Great Plains.

"You will never find a better spot than the Great Lakes," says John Kourtoff, CEO of Trillium Power Wind Corp., a Toronto company that plans to begin erecting turbines in Lake Ontario as early as 2013.

It's likely that the first offshore site in the US will be on the East Coast. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has said he'll decide by the end of April whether to allow the controversial Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound, off Massachusetts. NRG Bluewater Wind has contracted to sell power from a wind farm 12 to 13 miles off Delaware, although it does not yet have permits to build.

Yet plans are racing along in the Great Lakes region, too. Ohio hopes to build a pilot project off Cleveland in Lake Erie. The New York Power Authority has invited proposals for wind farms in lakes Ontario and Erie.

Ontario may outpace them. A new provincial law offering generous compensation for offshore wind power has inspired a flood of proposals.

Economically troubled states like Michigan and Ohio have a powerful motive to explore wind power – the prospect of thousands of jobs connected to building, installing, and maintaining wind turbines. "They are competing, in a sense, to get the projects under way so they can get all the positive economic impacts they can get from these projects, as soon as they can, to stimulate the state's economy," says John Hummer, project manager for offshore wind energy at the Great Lakes Commission, a public agency that promotes cooperation between the states and Ontario and Quebec.

Several hurdles stand in the way of large-scale power production on the Great Lakes, experts caution. The region has little capacity to manufacture the massive turbines used for offshore wind. In many states, the permitting process is unclear. And the cost of installing turbines in water is high. (Monitor Report: "Amid economic crisis, wind power spins more slowly")

And although wind farms have aroused scant opposition on the sparsely populated Great Plains, it's been a different story in the Great Lakes region and on the East Coast.

"It's almost worse with offshore," says Liesl Clark, deputy director of Michigan's Department of Energy, Labor & Economic Growth. "People have a passion about water."

No doubt, the dimensions of the proposed wind farm off Pentwater have created a stir. In December, the company involved, Scandia Wind Offshore, presented plans for as many as 200 turbines with a combined generating capacity of 1,000 megawatts – enough to power 300,000 households. Perched on massive concrete bases, the turbines would rise as high as 569 feet above the water. Under this proposal, the nearest turbines would stand between 1-1/2 and four miles from shore, with others farther out.

Michigan's Great Lakes Wind Council has recommended a buffer of six miles. But this distance poses problems for Lake Michigan and other parts of the Great Lakes, where the depths often exceed the capacity of technology now used in Europe to support offshore turbines.

"You can engineer them at any depth you want," says Steve Warner, Scandia's CEO. "But it's too expensive."

Mr. Warner says his company chose the Pentwater site for the quality of the wind, the structure of the lake bottom, and the proximity to areas of high demand, among other reasons. "From a technological point of view, you cannot find a better spot," he says.

But opposition arose soon after Scandia revealed its plans. On Feb. 8, the Village Council passed a resolution against the proposal. Debra Flood, a teacher's aide who grew up in Pentwater, is one of the dissenters. "I know a lot of people will be upset," she says, but she's willing to accept the project "if it helps to bring jobs."

More typical is Mike Myaard, owner of the Channel Lane Inn and chairman of the local chamber of commerce. The wind farm, he says, would mar Pentwater's chief attraction. "People come here for the serenity and the beautiful lakeshore," says Mr. Myaard. But he adds, "If they didn't have to see the turbines, most people would accept it."

The strong feelings against the wind farm aren't limited to people who would look at it on a daily basis. The feelings arise even among the landlocked.

"I like the thought of the wind project," says Thomas Youngstrom, a third-generation farmer who grows corn, soybeans, and asparagus several miles inland. "I don't know if I want them out on my beautiful lake. I'd rather have them on land."

After meeting with local officials, Scandia revised its plans in mid-February, saying it would cut the number of turbines in half and put them no closer than four miles from shore.

But the changes are small, says Ms. Pierman, the village president. "I can't say where people are going to like that any better," she says.

Scandia officials say they won't go ahead with the project if local people don't want it. But their proposal has awakened Pentwater and other communities to the real possibility of wind farms on the Great Lakes.

"If you have the wind sitting outside your window in the Great Lakes, why not use it?" asks Arnold Boezaart, director of the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center at Grand Valley State University in Muskegon. "It's an open question."

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