It began as brainstorming on offshore wind farms for Evanston a couple of years ago. Now, harvesting the wind over Lake Michigan has turned into a state-level debate that could transform Chicago’s shoreline.
The plan spearheaded a statewide report for the development of offshore wind farms on Lake Michigan. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources issued the report this summer to establish statewide regulations for wind farms on the lake. The possibility of creating offshore wind energy farms on the lake is a focus of alternative energy discussions, but Evanston residents helped harness those ideas into a state level task force.
Although no actual project is in the works to place wind turbines off-shore as of yet, Evanston prompted the state to examine the legal authorization necessary to advance the issue. Namely, what it would mean for a city to lease the lakebed and the issues pertaining to permits and licensing.
As a result of the city entertaining the idea of offshore energy, state representative Robyn Gabel (D-18th)), whose constituents include Evanston citizens, introduced a bill that resulted in Public Act 97-0266. The act created the Lake Michigan Offshore Wind Energy Advisory Council formed last fall.
“A lot of times we pass legislation, and it never gets done,” Gabel said. “I was really pleased that the Department of Natural Resources took this quite seriously.”
Since fall, the advisory council has met with officials from Illinois’ Department of Natural Resources to offer input in their research, which led to the recent release of the department’s final report June 30.
“It ran much smoother than I could have imagined,” Gabel said. “Everyone who had concerns was heard at the meetings. Their comments were included at the end of the report.” Concerns included aesthetics, cost and impact on birds.
The release of the final report now opens doors for Illinois lawmakers to create legislation authorizing permits to developers, an initiative that Gabel said she hopes to lead through the state’s environmental caucus during the 98th general assembly.
“There’s not a lot of reaction just yet,” said Todd Main, deputy director of the Department of Natural Resources of the final report’s recent release. With Illinois legislators out on summer holiday, state legislators have had little to no time to digest the information. That may change later this year.
In addition to providing background information on the potential environmental impact offshore wind energy development may have on the lake’s ecology, the report offers policy recommendations to legislators on how to take the next steps forward for planning and development.
“You have to give Evanston credit for some of the initial energy idea, but other states have been looking at offshore wind, and Illinois has just been a little late to the dance,” said Jeff Smith, a an off-shore wind council member representing Citizens’ for a Greener Evanston. Yet Smith appreciated the fact that the legislature “decided to form a task force and get some recommendations rather than cut and paste what Michigan or Ohio might have done.”
How it all began
In 2010, Evanston considered offshore wind energy farms, as opposed to land-based wind turbines, as an alternative energy source in order to reduce its community-wide carbon footprint through its climate action plan.
“Evanston has a long tradition of being environmentally conscious, long before sustainability was even common place,” said Catherine Hurley, the city’s sustainable programs coordinator. “We were developing a climate action plan [to reduce greenhouse emissions] when many other communities in our area and our country did not have one.
After a series of community meetings and discussions that included organizations such as Citizens’ for a Greener Evanston, the city issued a “Request for More Information,” or RFI, in May 2010 to further explore off-shore wind energy.
The RFI sought to “identify potential partners, determine the City’s role and establish a process for the development of a renewable energy facility off Evanston’s Lake Michigan shore,” according to city records.
Two developers – Mercury Wind and Off Grid Technologies – responded to the city’s call with proposals outlining necessary steps for planning and development. Details included business plans and infrastructural considerations.
Cost implications for Evanston residents are addressed in the RFIs but no specific numbers were given, due in part because the city derives energy from various power generating facilities.
“Unless the community so chose, the wind farm likely would not affect the price to Evanston customers, with the impact depending on the differential at time of delivery between wind farm-produced power and other sourced power, and upon how much of the wind farm was included in Evanston’s power mix,” the report said.
Yet legal problems rapidly emerged, as opponents were quick to point out that Evanston had no legal rights to lease the bottom of the lake to developers.
That power lay in the hands of the state – specifically, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “We hold the lakebed in public trust for this and future generations,” Main said. “Any construction activity in the lake would have to be permitted by DNR, and so what we’re doing is we want to prepare for the day we get a proposal to put a wind farm out there.”
What happens next: Offshore horizon
The first steps required to advance off shore wind energy is state legislation. But with the Illinois general assembly in recess, the issue is at a standstill until lawmakers come together to discuss the issue and create legal authorization for future offshore wind energy developers to get to work.
Long-term concerns that arise include cost and economic viability. “The big hurdle right now is cost,” Main said. But as time passes and technology continues to advance, costs are expected to drop.
Hurley stressed the implications of cost as well. “If the economics doesn’t support it, it probably won’t happen. With electricity prices and natural gas prices, there’s going to have be some market,” she said.
Estimating the number of years before Illinois citizens can see wind turbines off Lake Michigan’s coastline is hypothetical at this point, but those involved say it would take the next decade or so.
“I think it’s fair that six years would be lightening speed and somewhere between 10 and 15 might be more realistic,” said Smith of Citizens’ Greener Evanston. “Events in other parts of the world can change the picture dramatically, if we have three to four more years of weather like this, climate change might be front burner again. This isn’t just about cheap power, it’s about green power.”