Wind turbines in Great Lakes?

Virginia Haske
Standing with Lake Michigan behind them, Alderman Ken Taylor and Mayor Virginia Haske pf Algoma, Wis., are among those opposed to wind turbines in the Great Lakes.Morry Gash / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

A little red lighthouse. Boardwalks. The blue-green waters of Lake Michigan stretching to the horizon.

It’s just another pretty-as-a-postcard view on the shores of this sleepy town of 5,700 a half-hour east of Green Bay. But how long the unspoiled vista in Algoma and in other communities along the Great Lakes will last is anybody’s guess.

Government and industry officials are set to meet in Madison and Toledo, Ohio, this month to talk about the prospects for installing giant electricity-generating windmills out in the Great Lakes.

Advocates say offshore wind turbines would be an efficient means of producing power. Opponents fear the windmills would harm the lakes’ natural beauty and hurt tourism and fishing.

“I’ll fight this every way I can,” said Algoma Alderman Ken Taylor, chairman of the city’s marina committee. “The beautiful view we have would be destroyed. ... How many are going to come here if we have these things off our coastline?”

The rows of windmills would tower as high as 400 feet and float or stand in relatively shallow water.

Winds over water are generally stronger, less turbulent and more consistent than those on land, said Walt Musial, senior engineer and offshore programs leader for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy contractor.

Major population and industrial centers such as Cleveland, Chicago, Gary, Ind., and Milwaukee are situated on the Great Lakes’ shores, reducing the need for long-distance transmission.

Twice as efficient
“Offshore machines can make about twice as much as onshore,” said Musial, who will make a presentation at a June 14 conference at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It’s a potentially big resource for renewable energy. You want to generate the electricity close to where people are going to use it.”

The UW-Madison conference will look at such things as efforts to gather wind data on the Great Lakes, technological barriers to offshore wind farms, and the political policies needed to spur their development.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency are among the agencies sponsoring the June 27-29 session in Toledo. Discussions are set on how to protect birds, bats and fish from the windmills.

European countries such as Denmark and Britain have developed wind farms in the North and Baltic seas. A Houston energy company plans to build a 170-turbine farm in the Gulf of Mexico off Texas’ Padre Island. An additional 50 turbines are planned off Galveston, Texas. East Coast offshore projects have been proposed off Long Island and Cape Cod.

But the idea has been slow to catch on around the Great Lakes. Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin regulators said they have yet to be approached by any energy companies with proposals for offshore windmills in the Great Lakes.

Utilities not quick to back
Some utilities consider the technology unproven and say the financial risks and the bureaucratic hurdles are too high.

Rob Benninghoff, director of renewable and special projects for Wisconsin Public Service Corp., which supplies power to much of northeastern Wisconsin, including the Green Bay area, said the utility is reluctant for now to pour ratepayers’ money into what would be a difficult approval process.

“I see it as a high-risk proposition,” Benninghoff said. “I don’t know of anyone who’s got any plans to do anything in Lake Michigan or the bay or anything. Not to say it won’t move in that direction ultimately.”

Besides having to shoulder the construction costs — the Padre Island project, for example, is expected to cost $1 billion to $2 billion — developers also would have to get federal and state permits.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has jurisdiction over structures in the lakes. Developers also would have to lease tracts of lake bottom from the states, and state utility regulators would have to sign off.

Hanging over every proposal would be concerns about fish, lake bottoms and migratory birds. And then there are worries about the view.

“That’s the No. 1 problem we face today in getting this industry started,” Musial said. “Visual pollution is preventing the country from embracing them.”