As energy from fossil fuels becomes scarcer and more controversial due to the looming threat of global climate change, Americans are searching harder and harder for guilt-free ways to power all of our gadgets. In Michigan, one of our most promising options for renewable energy is electricity generating wind turbines. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Michigan has the potential for 16, 560 Megawatts of wind energy, making us the biggest stakeholder in wind energy east of the Mississippi River. Despite that fact, we lag far behind many other eastern states in actual installed capacity. Why is that? Wind energy will last as long as the earth's atmosphere is in place, emits no greenhouse gases, and the average wind turbine generates enough electricity to ‘pay back' its energy cost of production and transportation in a few months. What's not to like?
Well, wind energy happens to be generated with turbines on top of very tall towers, with rotor diameters often measuring 100 meters across. These turbines stick out in a natural landscape like a sore thumb, and create considerable noise. They have also been proven to kill birds and bats which fly into the rapidly spinning rotors. While it is widely held that the environmental advantages of displacing fossil fuels as an energy source far outweigh the localized damage to flying fauna, the sight and sound of wind turbines has some Michigan residents up in arms over proposals to establish wind ‘farms' off the coast of Lake Michigan. Property owners in places like Ludington do not necessarily want their sunsets over the lake to be disturbed by the sight and sound of wind turbines, even if they support the move to renewable energy. It's a classic case of "not in my back yard!"
Policy makers are now scrambling to lay down guidelines for how this rapidly expanding industry will be regulated. Senate bill 1067 compels the Michigan public service commission to create rules and procedures for the permitting, site selection, and fee regulation of offshore wind farms. A key piece of this legislation is ‘the preservation of the public trust in lands and waters of the Great Lakes', which means that the needs and wants of wind energy developers must not infringe on the needs and wants of the rest of the Lake's stakeholders. That includes the tourism industry and the cottage owners who bought their property with an unobstructed view of Lake Michigan in mind. House bill 5761 amends the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act to provide for a public notice and comment/review process before any aspect of wind farm infrastructure can be developed. In this way, the public has a venue in which to voice their concerns with any proposed wind farm development.
Many people who currently oppose near-shore wind farms would happily approve of wind farms that were placed further out into the lake, out of sight from the shore. Some argue that these farms would need to be at least six miles offshore, significantly increasing the costs of constructing, maintaining, and transmitting energy from the site. Still, the initial investment will no doubt be considered worth it by some firms looking to profit from the massive potential Michigan's wind resources offer. While increased permitting always slows down the growth of an industry, this proposed legislation would ensure that all stakeholders are able to continue enjoying the lakes in the same fashion they are used to. And since the six mile limit is not explicitly legislated, some communities could elect to attract wind energy investment to their area by being willing to approve construction of infrastructure much closer to shore.
Though both pieces of legislation were introduced by Republicans, this is not really a partisan issue. Democrats and Republicans alike tend to be opposed to massive projects that they perceive will have a direct, negative impact on their lives. In some towns, such as Pentwater, virtually the entire community has come out in opposition to wind farms sited within sight of the shore. The future of wind farms, particularly offshore, in Michigan remains to be seen. As of now, both pieces of legislation are in committee. I am hopeful that in the end, wind power can and will provide a significant portion of Michigan's energy needs, and the impacts on tourism, fisheries, bird populations, and that all-important sunset view will be minimized. Only time will tell.