Wind Turbines in body of water.
Wind Turbines in body of water. (Enrique/Pexels)

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.”

Is Great Lake wind more resourceful than inshore wind? 

There are currently only two operating offshore wind farms in the United States: the Block Island Wind Farm off of Rhode Island and the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind off of Virginia Beach. There are others still in the developmental stages but are mostly along the Atlantic or Pacific coasts. 

Illinois is trying to be the first state to try and leverage wind power from the Great Lakes but a project in Ohio — which is significantly smaller — already has a head start.

The Icebreaker Wind Turbine project is advertised as the “first offshore wind facility in the Great Lakes” and the “first freshwater wind farm in North America.” The project will build six turbines about eight miles offshore in Cleveland.

But that project suffered several financing, regulatory and legal setbacks for more than a decade before the Supreme Court of Ohio finally gave the green light for the project in August.

A huge hurdle remains for the Icebreaker project as it has no entity ready to buy the energy it will create.

David McEllis, Illinois Legislative Director for Environmental Law and Policy Center, shared his opposition of the Rust Belt to Green Belt pilot during a House committee hearing over the bill. He pointed out how Ohio’s project still hasn’t gotten off the ground even though it is significantly smaller. 

The Illinois project would look to produce 150 megawatts of energy while the Ohio project will produce just 20 megawatts.  

“That much smaller Ohio Lake Erie project is projected to cost $173 million which is much more expensive per [megawatts] than the usual land based project,” McEllis testified. 

But more concerning for McEllis was the prospect of selling off portions of Lake Michigan to developers. 

“First, the Great Lakes should be off limits to development of any kind consistent with the Public Trust Doctrine,” McEllis said. “The Public Trust protects the rights of citizens to use and enjoy the lake. The Public Trust is violated when the primary purpose of a legislative grant is to benefit private interest.”

McEllis also stressed the offshore wind power in the Great Lakes is unproven or has any greater benefits than that of land projects. 

New York State Energy Research and Development Authority has researched whether adding wind generated renewable energy to its state waters of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario is worth the cost. 

In December, the New York Authority’s study concluded “that Great Lakes Wind currently does not offer a unique, critical, or cost-effective contribution toward the achievement of New York State’s Climate Act goals beyond what existing, more cost-competitive programs are currently expected to deliver.”

Great Lakes wind doesn’t provide the same electric and reliability benefits that ocean wind provides, NYSERDA said, and would be significantly more costly for ratepayers to support than land-based wind or solar energy. 

Evans said this is a non-issue for Illinois as New York didn’t examine Lake Michigan. 

“This will be a big piece in reaching our goal for the state,” Evans said. “The ultimate goal is to lay out clean energy infrastructure and we are doing that. We are making history.” 

Manny comes to Illinois Answers Project after four years at the Chicago Sun-Times where he most recently covered transportation. During his time at the Sun-Times, he covered a broad range of topics, including communities and the U.S. Census Bureau. Manny joined the Sun-Times as a Report for America corps member with a mission to strengthen the paper’s coverage of issues facing the city’s South and West Sides. Manny is a Chicago native who has a background in service and solution journalism - which was showcased during his time at City Bureau, a nonprofit civic media organization. He was part of teams that reported on dwindling community-policing initiatives, public health issues related to building demolitions and how incarcerated people struggle to seek post-conviction relief. Manny also has written for the Chicago Reader, WBEZ Chicago, The Groundtruth Project, and South Side Weekly. He graduated from DePaul University with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism.