Wind turbines are being built in ocean waters off the east and west coasts. But why don’t we see any in the Great Lakes?
Editor’s Note: We’re proud to have entered a collaboration with the Points North podcast produced by Interlochen Public Radio of northern Michigan, publishing transcripts of their vital reporting on Great Lakes environmental issues. This will be the first publication in an ongoing partnership.
By Patrick Shea
As autumn turns to winter in the Great Lakes, frequent storms bring tall waves crashing against the shoreline. When these gale force winds blow across the water, some see untapped potential.
“This is our time to make money. When the winds show up, we’re ready to go,” said Brian Zatloukal, renewable operations manager with Consumers Energy.
At the Lake Winds Energy Park in western Michigan, he monitors 56 wind turbines scattered across 35 square miles of rolling hills.
The turbines rise high above orchards of fruit trees. They’re almost 500 feet tall at the highest point of the blades.
Any time the wind blows around seven miles per hour, those blades start turning. And when they do, the turbines generate electricity that feeds into the grid through underground cables.
“What really ends up happening on the grid is on high wind days you’ll see natural gas fuel generation plants back down and not fire as hard and generate as much power,” Zatloukal said. “You’ll see coal plants get turned down and not fire as hard. And the concept is that you’re displacing the fossil [fuel] generation with a renewable asset generation.”
Backing off those fossil fuels during high winds is a step towards Michigan’s goal for carbon emissions. The state wants its carbon emissions at net zero by 2050. Five of the seven Great Lakes states have set similar goals.
Consumers Energy’s 56 turbines in Mason County can generate 100 megawatts of electricity in peak conditions. (Photo: Patrick Shea / Interlochen Public Radio.)
And here at the Lake Winds Energy Park, just a few miles from Lake Michigan, the conditions are really good for turning wind into energy.
“Geographically, with prevailing wind patterns, having that open space behind is a big deal,” said Zatloukal. “As you go inland, literally the roughness of the earth tends to slow the wind speeds down. So terrain, trees, etcetera tend to slow it down.”
One place totally free of those wind barriers is out in the open water. Offshore wind turbines are popping up in ocean waters off the east and west coasts. But why don’t we see any in the waters of the Great Lakes?
“Is there a tremendous resource? No question. But people don’t generally want to see them right now offshore, which is a challenge,” Zatloukal said. “We would have to change hearts and minds around that for sure.”
Offshore wind energy in the Great Lakes has enormous potential.
A report last year looked at expected electricity demands by 2050. Using data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, it found that in Wisconsin, there’s enough offshore wind to provide almost 30 percent of that demand. And in Michigan, it’s closer to two thirds.
Despite that potential, public opposition has proven to be the greatest barrier to offshore wind development in the region.
But the first ever offshore wind project in the Great Lakes was officially approved this summer. It would be the first of its kind: six turbines located about eight miles from Cleveland – right in the waters of Lake Erie.
Lake Erie will be home to the first offshore wind turbines in the waters of the Great Lakes. (PHOTO: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)
The Icebreaker Wind Project could pave the way for more wind turbines in the Great Lakes. But that’s the last thing some people want to hear.
“Mark my word – once they put one in the water, it will just continue on and on and on until all the lakes are filled,” said Sharen Trembath. “They’re not gonna stop.”
Sharen Trembath is from Evans, New York, about 20 miles south of Buffalo. She says she’s been defending Lake Erie for most of her life.
“I’m 77. When I was 16, my brothers and I helped stop the gill nets in Lake Erie. I’ve worked on the pharmaceuticals being dumped into the lake. I’ve worked on phosphates – we fought Proctor and Gamble back in 1989,” said Trembath.
For Trembath, protecting the lake doesn’t just mean trying to stop things from happening. It’s hands on, too.
“For the past 40 years I’ve been the Lake Erie Coordinator for the International Coastal Cleanup,” Trembath said. I have 2,000 volunteers from Presque Isle, Pennsylvania up to Niagara Falls who clean up the shoreline every year. I call it the Great Lakes Beach Sweep.”
Trembath said all that activism comes from her lifelong relationship with the lake. She said living near Lake Erie has given her a deeper appreciation for the natural world.
“I live about 500 feet from the shoreline. Today, it’s perfectly calm. It’s absolutely beautiful. It matches any Caribbean place I’ve ever been to,” said Trembath. “Tomorrow, Lake Erie can kick up in a minute. It’s the shallowest of the Great Lakes, so it can kick up to an amazing storm.”
She said she loves looking out at the lake in any weather – and she enjoys seeing it change.
But now, there’s another change she doesn’t like seeing.
“One thing that’s really aggravating: we can see the turbines over in Canada,” said Trembath. “When we look out at night, we can see the red blinking lights and it looks like Christmas lights. I don’t find them pretty or majestic at all; I find them ugly and industrial.”
Those turbines are on the Canadian shoreline. But she’s fighting to keep them out of the lake. She’s part of a group called Citizen’s Against Wind Turbines in Lake Erie.
Trembath said a company called Diamond Offshore Wind approached her town’s local government three years ago. It wanted to build 50 turbines in the lake. Nothing has been officially proposed yet, but her group is trying to get ahead of it by catalyzing opposition.
“Our focus is educating the public that this is their lake,” Trembath said. “And we’re asking people to call and write their elected officials and let them know how they feel. Whatever your passion is, you tell your elected official why you – in your words – don’t want them in the lake.
There are plenty of reasons people don’t want these turbines. But the way they look is a big one. And some say the visual impacts are more than just aesthetics.
“Lake Erie tourism creates about 150,000 jobs,” said John Lipaj, a board member of the Lake Erie Foundation. The environmental non-profit fights harmful algal blooms, microplastics and now, the Icebreaker Wind Project.
“One of our concerns is that you have people who come to Lake Erie for their vacations,” Lipaj said. “And if you start planting wind turbines offshore, ruining those views, how is that going to affect those actual jobs?”
A study from North Carolina State University asked that same question.
Researchers surveyed tourists at popular beaches about how wind turbines in the water would affect their experience. Eighty percent of respondents said they either wouldn’t come back to the same spot for vacation, or, they’d expect an unrealistic price drop to make it worth their while.
Lipaj says the same could be true for Ohio.
“Sandusky and the Lake Erie Islands, Cedar point – all those places along the lake are dependent upon Lake Erie for tourists,” said Lipaj. “So that was a pretty telling study for us, in terms of vacationer’s attitudes.”
The Icebreaker Wind Project has already been approved. But the Lake Erie Foundation is still trying a longshot legal effort to stop it. They’ve joined forces with two bird conservation groups and filed a federal lawsuit against the government agencies that approved the project. But there’s no guarantee they’ll get a hearing.
Lipaj and many others are worried the turbines could kill migratory birds flying over Lake Erie. But the National Audubon Society has actually voiced its support for the Icebreaker Project. It says almost 400 species of North American birds are threatened by a warming climate, and wind energy could help limit that warming.
But when it comes down to it, it’s hard to say exactly what the impact will be on birds before the wind turbines are actually in the lake.
Jade Davis hopes his hometown of Cleveland, OH, will be a hub for innovation and wind energy. (Photo: Erik Drost / Wikimedia Commons)
Not everyone who loves the Great Lakes wants to keep them turbine-free. Like Sharen Trembath and John Lipaj, Jade Davis has spent most of his life near Lake Erie.
“I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. So I definitely understand that aesthetics and the relationship people have with the Great Lakes are real things to take into context,” Davis said. “I think everyone involved understands that.”
Jade is one of those involved. He’s with the Port of Cleveland, a government agency overseeing the Icebreaker Project.
“This project was designed to mitigate those aesthetic issues from the jump with the placement of the turbines,” said Davis. “You’ll need a clear day and have to actually be looking directly — or be in a building really high up in Cleveland — to even see the tops of them in the faint distance. I mean, you’re talking eight miles. It’s not going to be like riding down the street and it’s just going to be a bunch of turbines there.”
The six turbines will be able to generate a little over 20 megawatts of power during peak production. To put that into context, the Cleveland Public Power system is about 300 megawatts. So these initial turbines won’t provide a huge portion of the city’s electricity, but Davis said it’s a test run.
“People say, ‘How come you’re only doing six? How come you’re not doing 60 or 600?’ Well, let’s make sure we can do this right,” said Davis. “Let’s make sure we can do this safely environmentally, and create real, sustainable, renewable power now at this level. Then we can go back and look at, ‘All right, is this right for the Great Lakes? Is this right for certain portions of the Great Lakes and not other portions? Where? How?’ All these kinds of things, that’s what Icebreaker Wind Project will solve for.”
This project has been a long time coming. It was first discussed in the early 2000s, then officially proposed about 10 years ago. But it faced legal opposition, especially from lakeshore residents and boaters. It wasn’t until August of 2022 that the Ohio Supreme Court finally gave the project the official go-ahead.
“I personally am just excited to see the real push towards innovation,” said Davis. “And then also the opportunity to create a hub here in northeast Ohio for onshore and offshore wind and technologies. We have the people, we have the logistics and so why not here?”
Icebreaker gets its name from the project’s design – the turbines will feature a mechanical cone that breaks up ice as it forms around the structure.
But the name has a double meaning.
This is a pilot project, so it’s breaking the ice for offshore wind in the Great Lakes. And there’s a lot of interest already.
A bill in Illinois set up a council to study offshore wind potential near Chicago. And a similar study is underway in New York for Lakes Erie and Ontario.
That kind of study happened in Michigan more than a decade ago. But there’s still no offshore wind turbines anywhere along Michigan’s 3,000 miles of lakefront.
Skip Pruss is the former head of Michigan’s energy department and he chaired the state’s Great Lakes Offshore Wind Council from 2009-2010.
Pruss says he expected to see turbines in Michigan waters by now.
“But we got a proposal that really was sort of like a atom bomb,” said Pruss.
In 2010, a company called Scandia Wind proposed a huge project off the shore of western Michigan. It received a lot of public backlash, and never came to fruition.
“It really catalyzed interest and opposition to offshore wind from people who live on Lake Michigan,” Pruss said. “And with respect to lakefront property – some of the most valuable property in the world – people who own it who have money. They have influence. They can retain lawyers and consultants to fight offshore wind, and they will do it.”
If this is getting repetitive – wind farm proposed, public outcry – Pruss said that’s pretty much been the story so far.
“The barriers are not economic. They’re not technical. They’re social and political. The biggest environmental and social and political challenge that the world faces – that all of us face – is climate change,” said Pruss. “And so we have to accelerate this clean energy transition and community opposition is a huge, huge impediment.”
Pruss said there’s one thing that might change that, and it’s simple: time. He gave an example of how that can happen.
“The most ubiquitous technology that is everywhere you go are wires and poles,” said Pruss. “Historically, there was opposition from farmers to rural electrification. Even though it provided such an incredible life changing benefit to them, they did not want those poles or wires on their properties.”
But Pruss said that opposition fizzled out over time.
“[Telephone poles] are everywhere, but you don’t see them anymore. And, you know, is that happening with wind farms?”
It’s true – poles and wires are everywhere now, and most people don’t think twice about them. But maybe it’s different when with the Great Lakes.
Offshore wind could produce a lot of electricity and lower carbon emissions. But the tricky thing is balancing that against the value of an unimpeded view. What’s it worth to look out at the horizon and see nothing but sky and water?