Great Lakes projects founder as political winds shift
Under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D), a clean energy advocate, Michigan made progress with Pruss — then director of the Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth — playing a key role
The Great Lakes Wind Council that he helped set up went as far as to produce draft legislation that would set up a regulatory framework for an offshore wind sector.
Now, Pruss is outside looking in.
In January 2011, Granholm left office after two terms and was replaced by Rick Snyder (R). With all eyes focused on economic recovery, offshore wind took a back seat. Outspoken public opposition in some quarters and the costs and engineering challenges associated with such projects haven’t helped.
It is a story that helps explain why there are no offshore wind farms in the Great Lakes, despite estimates that the lakes could generate up to 700 gigawatts of electricity. Even 1 gigawatt of offshore wind could power 300,000 homes and potentially avoid 2.7 million metric tons a year of carbon emissions, according to the Obama administration.
It’s not just Michigan that has yet to open a clear regulatory pathway for offshore wind. Other Great Lakes states — not to mention Ontario and Quebec in Canada — are in a similar situation.
Aside from a change in the political and economic climate, the states must find a way to issue permits for projects that have never been done before.
Even the Obama administration’s recent announcement that it has signed a memorandum of agreement with states to streamline federal regulations to free up wind developers is unlikely to have a huge impact in the short term, people involved in the issue in Michigan agree.
“It’s frustrating. It’s disappointing,” Pruss said. “But I remain optimistic.”
In October 2010, offshore wind energy in Michigan appeared to have considerable momentum.
It was then that the state wind council issued its 70-page report outlining what was needed to kick-start offshore wind energy on the portions of Lake Michigan, Lake Superior and Lake Huron that are under the state’s jurisdiction
As Pruss, who chaired the council, recalled, the consensus was that the existing permitting program “never envisioned the use of the bottomlands for offshore wind.”
The report recommended a legislative framework that would allow for the “most favorable” areas for leasing to be subject to public bids soon after the legislature took action.
Less than two years later, the report is languishing.
Snyder, while not overtly hostile to wind energy, has not exactly been a cheerleader for it either.
Although he signed the recent agreement with the Obama administration along with four other governors, he has also questioned the viability of offshore wind at present and said he would not support legislation that would clear a path for development.
“The technical and cost barriers to offshore wind are still very significant,” Snyder said in a statement. “We need the research efforts to bear more fruit before we redesign the regulatory framework we have in place. Our current system protects Michigan’s interests at this time.”
Pruss, who now works for 5 Lakes Energy, a clean energy consulting firm, concedes enthusiasm has waned.
“I think the administration is cognizant of Great Lakes issues as they pertain to wind energy,” he said. “They are mindful there is need for a new framework.”
As for the Legislature, it is “in two minds,” according to Pruss, in large part because of opposition from often well-heeled shoreline residents who do not like the idea of wind turbines ruining their views.
Icebreaker in Lake Erie
What’s happened in Michigan mirrors events in the other seven Great Lakes states.
From her corner office at the Great Lakes Commission, located incongruously in a suburban office park in Ann Arbor, Victoria Pebbles has a better perspective than most on obstacles facing offshore wind. All eight Great Lakes states are members of the commission, while Ontario and Quebec both play a role too.
Pebbles is staff director of the commission’s “wind collaborative” that, as she put it during a recent interview, “assumes wind is going to happen,” but the coalition is not promoting it.
Currently, none of the eight states has enacted wind-specific legislation. All are tackling the same issues as Michigan, albeit in different ways. Ohio, for example, believes it can tailor existing regulations.
It is also the state that is “furthest along,” according to Pebbles.
The Lake Erie Energy Development Corp., known as LEEDCo, is planning a 20- to 30-megawatt pilot project, consisting of five to seven turbines, 7 miles offshore from Cleveland. But even that is only at the planning stage.
There is a reason why the Ohio project is called “Icebreaker.”
LEEDCo started with a pilot project in hopes of gradually winning public confidence, spokesman Donny Davis said.
“We are looking at this as a small initial demonstration project, as a means to building the industry in Ohio,” he said in an interview.
The small scale of the proposal also helps navigate the state bureaucracy. When it comes to seeking permits, the process will be fluid. Davis uses phrases like “open dialogue” and “collaborate approach” when describing how LEEDCo plans to proceed.
Icebreaker is the guinea pig that will help not just future developers but also state bureaucrats as they figure out how wind farms differ from other types of projects that require offshore leasing, Davis said.
Even if Icebreaker is more likely to happen than other projects in the Great Lakes, Davis says it is suffering from the same problems faced by similar efforts in Michigan, exacerbated by the fact that natural gas, not offshore wind, is the top priority for Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R).
“It’s the same everywhere,” Davis said. “There hasn’t been a governor who is a table-pounder for offshore wind.”
The Obama administration’s announcement last month of the memorandum of understanding seemed like an attempt to urge the states forward (Greenwire, March 30).
But its effect will be limited because the federal government does not have exclusive jurisdiction. Only with the cooperation of states is anything going to happen, and three states — Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin — didn’t sign the agreement.
Pebbles noted, however, the deal could help focus attention on what states need to do to because “it will expose where the gaps are and identify areas where legislation is needed.”
The states that did not sign “had no technical issues” with the agreement, Pebbles said. In the future, she added, “they can sign up, if they so desire.”
LEEDCo’s Davis downplayed that fact that Ohio did not sign the agreement, saying it only marks “preliminary discussions” and shouldn’t necessary hamper future growth.
Back in Lansing, Pruss still believes legislation will be needed to make Michigan a leader in the field.
In the meantime, the future remains cloudy.
Asked whether a wind developer could pursue a Michigan project right now, Pruss pursed his lips.
“It’s uncertain,” he said.