Great Lakes
Some Great Lakes leaders want to see offshore wind farms like this one in Rhode Island on the Midwest’s freshwater seas. But tapping into the lakes’ vast wind potential comes with many hurdles. Scott Eisen/Getty Images

USA - Offshore wind in the Midwest? Some Great Lakes leaders think so.

The lakes have massive energy potential, but harnessing it will be a big challenge.

Years from now, when Chicagoans stroll the Lake Michigan waterfront, they may see the blades of wind turbines glinting on the horizon. Clevelanders could glimpse wind farms over Lake Erie. And cities like Milwaukee and Buffalo could be vying to attract a burgeoning offshore wind industry on the Great Lakes.

That’s the vision some regional leaders have for America’s Third Coast. They see the Midwest’s freshwater seas as 94,000 square miles of untapped potential, boasting consistently strong winds in a region that’s already home to an established manufacturing sector.

Lawmakers in Illinois and Pennsylvania are considering bills this year to promote offshore wind development in the waters off their coasts. In Ohio, a long-debated project to install six turbines on Lake Erie has had its permits upheld by the state Supreme Court, clearing the way for the nation’s first freshwater wind farm.

“This region often gets overlooked as an area that is like a coastal area,” said Carlos Ochoa, ocean program manager with the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, a forum for state lawmakers. “You’re seeing legislative movement in Great Lakes states where offshore wind wasn’t much of a consideration years ago.”

But the lakes also pose unique challenges, including winter ice cover, insufficient port and shipping infrastructure, and communities that value the coastlines for their natural beauty.

That’s why other regions have moved more quickly. Offshore wind projects are burgeoning on the Atlantic coast, where states have spent years crafting utility requirements and investing in ports and infrastructure. On the Pacific Ocean, states hope new technologies could unlock wind potential in deeper waters.

The Biden administration has committed to reaching 30 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2030, enough to power more than 10 million homes. Some leaders think it’s time for the Great Lakes to be part of that mix.

If you’re from Cleveland, Lake Erie is your national park.
– John Lipaj, Lake Erie Foundation

The American side of the lakes is bordered by Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Each state controls the waters off its coast, extending to the middle of the lake where it reaches a border with the state or Canadian province on the opposite shore.

Many of those states still rely heavily on coal and natural gas to supply their electricity; the eight states bordering the lakes produce a quarter of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

Meanwhile, according to one federal estimate, the Great Lakes represent one-fifth of the nation’s offshore wind potential.

For all that potential, some critics liken putting wind farms on the Great Lakes to filling the Grand Canyon with solar panels.

“If you’re from Cleveland, Lake Erie is your national park,” said John Lipaj, a board member with the Lake Erie Foundation, an Ohio-based advocacy nonprofit. “I can think of very few people that want to see Lake Erie turn into an industrial wind facility.”

Others, though, think turbines on the horizon could be a point of pride, especially if Great Lakes wind can turn the Rust Belt into a clean energy hub.

“Some people will look at that as a visible indicator that we’re doing big things to fight climate change,” said Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club’s Illinois chapter.

‘Feels like the future’

Earlier this year, the Illinois House advanced a bill that would direct the state to pursue a pilot project on Lake Michigan, aimed at bringing 150 megawatts of power online by 2030. Offshore wind experts say it’s the strongest measure any Great Lakes state has considered to promote such development.

The proposal also would create a fund that would enable the state to compete for federal infrastructure money, while establishing equity requirements to ensure that workforce and economic opportunities are directed to marginalized communities.

“This is novel and exciting and really feels like the future,” said state Rep. Ann Williams, a Democrat who chairs the Energy and Environment Committee. “There’s a lot of untapped potential offshore.”

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