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Studies Lift Hopes for Great Lakes Wind Turbine Farms

The production estimate of 321,000 megawatts cited in the Michigan State study includes turbines at all depths. Existing offshore wind turbines are in water 197 feet deep or less. At that depth, the study says, 103,000 megawatts could be generated with 33,861 turbines. Concerns about environmental impacts and opposition from residents would significantly reduce that potential. But, said study co-author Soji Adelaja, that still means a lot of potential wind power.

"Just announcing potential doesn't really mean anything, but hopefully this will start deliberations about how to do it," he said. "Michigan has these old abandoned industrial facilities used for automobile parts. If wind energy picks up, those could be redirected to making wind components."

The state has not actively pursued offshore wind energy but expects it may get proposals from private firms, said John Sarver, supervisor of technical assistance in the Michigan Energy Office and chairman of the Michigan Wind Working Group. Such proposals would go primarily through the Department of Environmental Quality.

"Tomorrow someone could knock on the DEQ's door and say they want to do something, and of course the state will have to respond," Sarver said. "Or another possibility is down the road sometime the state would issue a request for proposal. We haven't had a chance to look over all the issues yet, so it would be a learning curve for everybody."

The areas in Michigan most conducive to offshore turbines might be the state's northeast coast in Lake Huron and the coasts of the Upper Peninsula, because they are relatively unpopulated, Adelaja said. But wind farms should ideally be located near the market for energy.

Tom Alisankus, chairman of a committee studying a proposed land-based wind farm in central Wisconsin, said offshore projects are far more palatable to people like him who have negative views of land-based wind power.

"Those have a lot more efficacy than land-based projects as far as actually generating energy and not interfering with people's lives," he said. "But people have to remember this is not free energy; there's a ton of expense in making these things, and they still have a huge carbon footprint in the manufacturing."

While not endorsing offshore wind, Brammeier of the Alliance for the Great Lakes said its negative impacts must be balanced against the long-term environmental benefits of clean energy.

"The states who own the lake bottom are empowered and required to secure it for the public interest," he said. "When you're talking about something like a pipeline through the lakes that binds us to a 19th-century way of thinking about energy, versus the development of wind resources, which is completely forward-looking, you're certainly looking at a different measure of whether that's serving the public interest."

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