When Rev. Scott Onqué looks out into Lake Michigan from a defunct steel mill from a bygone era; he sees an untapped solution to combat climate change.
“Communities like mine in the Southeast Side don’t get to see the emergence of renewable energy — we are often left behind just like we are with everything else,” Onqué said, policy director for the nonprofit Faith in Place. “We are the last to get solar on our roofs, we won’t ever see wind turbines unless we travel downstate and we are constantly fighting against serial polluters.”
That’s why, Onqué said, he is excited about a bill making its way through the state that would create the largest wind farm in the Great Lakes. He and lawmakers are hoping to bring the first offshore wind farm to the Southeast Side.
But while there is excitement around the possibility of an offshore wind farm there are also concerns.
Offshore wind farms are far more costly than land projects and Great Lake winds are said to not be as great of an energy source as winds in the Atlantic Ocean. There also are apprehensions over the precedent being set by privatizing portions of Lake Michigan.
State Rep. Marcus Evans, D-Chicago, sponsored the House bill and said he believes all concerns are valid but he simply disagrees with the notion. Building offshore wind farms, he said, is necessary for the state to reach its clean energy goals.
“Wind energy is a piece of solar energy and is a part of the renewable energy of the future; so it makes sense for all of us to push for this and for the state to be at the forefront of that push,” Evans said. “It is about creating a framework for the development of clean energy through offshore wind — this bill allows for a pilot of offshore wind in the Great Lakes.”
The bill passed in the House late last month with bipartisan approval and now sets the stage for the Senate to push the bill through in the coming weeks before it can get to Gov. JB Pritzker’s desk.
How do wind farms work and what will one in Lake Michigan look like?
The principles of wind energy are fairly simple. Large turbines are erected and use wind flow to turn its propeller-like blades around a rotor that spins a generator to create electricity. That electricity is then sent to a substation which is then transferred to an existing transmission system.
Offshore wind farms are believed to be more effective at generating energy than onshore wind because there aren’t any restrictions such as buildings or hills to disrupt the wind flow. Larger turbines can also be built offshore than onshore to take advantage of that unobstructed wind.
The bill moving through state legislation, called Rust Belt to Green Belt, would grant the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) to seek federal funding to build an offshore port. It also directs the Illinois Power Agency to obtain power from an offshore wind pilot project.
If the legislation passes, DCEO would have the power to court private companies capable of building the wind-powered infrastructure through a request for proposal process. That company would also manage the windfarm.
Evans said there would be about 30 to 35 devices several miles out in Lake Michigan generating about 150 megawatts of wind power. While the bill doesn’t specify where along the lake the offshore windfarm will be, Evans said he and others have every intention of pushing for it to be based on the Southeast Side.
The bill also has the backing of labor leaders because it is expected to generate thousands of clean energy jobs. Several environmental groups also see this as a move in the right direction for combating the threat of climate change and support the bill.
Audubon Great Lakes, a conservation group working to protect habitats for birds, also issued their support.
“The Rust Belt to Green Belt act represents an important opportunity for Illinois to continue to lead on an equitable transition to a carbon free and clean energy economy,” Adam Forrer, policy director of Audubon Great Lakes, said in a statement. “Offshore wind is an important component of achieving a net-zero emission goal, and Audubon Great Lakes supports the development of environmentally responsible offshore wind energy that first avoids, minimizes and mitigates impacts to birds and other wildlife.”
But there still remains some reservations among climate-friendly groups.
The Environmental Law and Policy Center has concerns about privatizing the lake and whether it could withstand legal challenges.
There are also concerns over the huge cost burden associated with an offshore wind farm in Lake Michigan — ratepayers will be on the hook for an estimated $680 million for one project over 20 years.
The bill also would give the developers access to $34 million in annual subsidies through a mandatory purchase deal with the Illinois Power Agency, Crain’s Chicago Business previously reported.
Evans said he understands the concerns but this bill is an aggressive step in reaching the state’s climate goals of relying on 100% renewable energy by 2050.
“Some of the best wind is offshore and I respect their concerns but this is necessary to reach our clean energy goals,” Evans said. “Of course there would be restrictions that are set up with the [Illinois Environmental Protection Agency] and there will be a lot of oversight, especially with how wildlife is affected, but it’s kind of unfounded concerns.”
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Manny Ramos is a former solutions and accountability reporter at the Illinois Answers Project.