Despite the nickname the “Windy City”, Chicago—and Illinois— don’t rank among the nation’s windiest regions. The Great Plains win that contest.
But one area of wind energy that the Chicago area could tap into is offshore wind power on Lake Michigan. The United States doesn’t have any offshore wind plants yet, but it does have island power.
Twelve miles off the coast of Rockland, Maine, two sister islands are a few of the last remaining year-round island communities not connected by a bridge to the East Coast. Because of the distance, commodities, including electricity, are expensive for communities that rely heavily on the fishing and lobster industries.
In 2008, Vinalhaven Island residents paid 29 cents per kilowatt-hour, while the national average hovered around 11 cents per kWh, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. One islander said her electric bills ranged anywhere from $300 to $900 for one month.
To become more energy independent, the Vinalhaven community formed the Fox Islands Electric Cooperative and the coop installed three wind turbines on the island in 2009 to offset their electricity costs. The community-based project cost $14.5 million.
The three turbines have the capacity to generate 4.5 megawatts of electricity per year, enough to power about half of the electricity use during the year Vinalhaven and North Haven Islands, both part of the Fox Islands. Excess electricity produced in the windier winter months is sold back to the electric grid.
Initially, nearly 100 percent of the islanders supported the project hoping the turbines would result in lower electric bills. After the turbines started spinning, electricity prices on the islands dropped to 24 cents per kilowatt-hour, a 17 percent decrease.
But soon after their installation, a few neighbors living near the turbines began to complain about the turbine noise.
One of the neighbors, Cheryl Lindgren, described the noise as a “repetitive ‘whump, whump, whump.’”
“I can feel this sound. It’s going right through me. I thought, ‘Is this what it’s going to be like for the rest of my life?’” Lindgren told a local newspaper after the turbines started to spin. Lindgren is a member of the Fox Islands Wind Neighbors, who oppose the turbines.
The Wind Neighbors have filed a petition asking a judge to vacate a June order by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection that said the wind farm met state sound requirements. The neighbors point to evidence that shows the turbines exceeded the nighttime sound requirements.
“The wind project was built with the idea of keeping the price of electricity as low as possible,” a Fox Islands Wind statement reads. Savings from the wind power have been lost paying for lawyers and sound consultants, according to the statement.
The coop surveyed island residents in May 2010. Out of the 515 returned surveys, 82 percent said they could not hear the turbines from their homes and offered comments on the wind project.
“When we were first here, he sound of the diesel generating plant was much louder thant the wind turbines,” one islander commented. “Don’t reduce,” meaning theturbines would be slowed down, reducing noise and power generation.
“We love our wind turbines. Like the old power plant, the sound is reassuring. We have power and from our own natural resource,” read another comment for the survey.
But 3 percent of respondents complained they could hear the turbines and half of those said they could hear them often. This 3 percent is the small but vocal minority in the Wind Neighbors group.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection advises that the turbines not exceed 45 decibels at night, which is about the sounds level of a conversation happening one meter away, said island resident Karol Kucinski.
To reduce the “whump, whump” sound, the coop installed serrations to the edges of the blades. “They look like sharks teeth,” George Baker, Fox Islands Winds chief operating officer said to the Herald Gazette. “We’re going to have the meanest looking turbines on the East Coast.”
The Illinois Offshore Wind Advisory Council was created in 2011 as a preliminary step for possible offshore power development in Lake Michigan by Evanston and Waukegan said Sierra Club member Jack Darin. But there are a variety of local, state and possible federal actions required before Illinois can move forward in the industry, he said.
“We’re hopeful that Illinois can put the framework in place to start [wind] development here,” Darin said.
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