Offshore wind farms get further scrutiny

April 1, 2012 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

Illinois is now one of five states that will begin developing a formal system to evaluate proposed offshore wind farms, the Obama administration announced Friday.

The move is one step toward speeding up government approval and permits so that offshore wind farms can eventually be developed, officials said.

But the action falls short of creating laws, regulations or even setting the evaluation standards. It does not establish how long it will take before offshore wind farms can go from being an idea to a reality.

The agreement basically gives state and federal officials the authority to coordinate and share information and determine the best way to evaluate offshore wind farm proposals.

“The goal of this memorandum of understanding is to cut through the red tape,” said Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Sutley called the bipartisan agreement a “smart and practical way to encourage the development of clean energy.”

According to Friday’s announcement, leaders in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota and New York have signed an agreement to work with 10 government agencies and establish a review process for offshore wind energy projects. There is no deadline for the process to be finalized.

Developers must get state and federal approval to build offshore wind farms.

The idea of offshore wind farms is so new that there is no procedure for issuing permits. In addition, there are no pending proposals for wind farms in the Great Lakes, Sutley said.

Some see the lakes’ winds as an untapped source of clean energy and economic growth. Administrators with the White House on Friday said developing offshore wind farms could create hundreds of jobs while reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Critics say offshore wind farms threaten local wildlife, are eyesores and cost too much to develop. The idea of wind farms has drawn harsh public resistance.

Friday’s announcement shows that the Obama administration looks favorably on offshore wind energy, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions, said Joel Brammeier, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

“This is something that the Great Lakes states have been asking for for a long time. It establishes a process where the state and federal governments can collaborate,” he said.

“There are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to offshore development,” he said. “How are we going to pay for this mode of energy development? How are you going to get materials to the site?

“What happens to the turbines after decades of life and they need to be pulled out so we’re not left with old farms? Between here and a permit for offshore winds, there are many questions, many unknowns and many steps,” Brammeier said.

For years officials in Illinois have talked about developing offshore wind energy.

In Chicago, the idea of wind turbines was nixed about seven years ago because of concerns that the machines posed a threat to migrating birds. On Friday, after the Obama administration’s announcement, city officials said the concept may be worth exploring again.

“The mayor is willing to consider any option that expands clean energy efficiency investments in Chicago,” said mayoral spokesman Tom Alexander. Mayor Rahm Emanuel will study the wind farm potential in light of the announcement, Alexander said. “We will weigh in on the potential of offshore wind farms when more information is available.”

Meanwhile, in Evanston, city officials have been studying the feasibility of installing dozens of wind turbines on the lake to generate enough energy for the city’s 30,000 homes.

Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl applauded the announcement from Washington.

“I think it’s terrific news, because I was told when I first started exploring wind turbines in the lake that no one would put them in the lake because there were no rules governing how to do it,” she said. “I’m delighted that five states made this pact.”

Last year, Evanston officials reviewed proposals from developers for offshore wind farms. Now the city is in a holding pattern on its potential wind farms and is monitoring the recently created Lake Michigan Offshore Wind Energy Advisory Council and the new coalition of five states for guidance, said Evanston City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz.

“One of the challenges we had when we went through our initial solicitation of partners was that there really weren’t viable partners available because there are so many unknowns,” he said. “Information is starting to come together.”

Tribune reporter John Byrne contributed.

jbullington@tribune.com

lbowean@@tribune.com

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