The Obama administration and five states announced an agreement Friday to speed up consideration of plans for offshore wind farms in the Great Lakes, which have been delayed by cost concerns and public opposition.
Under the deal, state and federal agencies will craft a blueprint for speeding regulatory review of proposed wind farms without sacrificing environmental and safety standards. The Great Lakes have no offshore wind turbines, although a Cleveland partnership announced plans last year for a demonstration project that would place five to seven turbines in Lake Erie about 7 miles north of the city, generating 20-30 megawatts of electricity.
Offshore wind projects have been proposed elsewhere in the region, including Michigan and New York, stirring fierce debate.
Critics say they would ruin spectacular vistas, lower shoreline property values and harm birds and fish. New York Power Authority trustees last September abandoned a plan for private companies to place up to 200 turbines, each about 450 feet high, in lakes Erie and Ontario. The Canadian province of Ontario in February 2011 ordered a moratorium on wind energy development in its Great Lakes waters to allow more study of environmental issues.
Supporters describe the lakes' winds as a vast, untapped source of clean energy and economic growth.
"The goal ... is to cut through red tape so we can efficiently and responsibly evaluate offshore wind projects that have the potential to create American jobs and reduce pollution in our communities," said Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Administration officials said the region's offshore winds could generate more than 700 gigawatts — one-fifth of all potential wind energy nationwide. Each gigawatt of offshore wind could power 300,000 homes while reducing demand for electricity from coal, which emits greenhouse gases and other pollutants, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.
Public resistance and logistical problems would pose formidable obstacles to approaching those levels, along with technical challenges such as preventing damage to turbines when the lake surfaces freeze in winter. Yet harnessing only a small portion of the Great Lakes' offshore wind could generate thousands of jobs, officials said.
Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York and Pennsylvania signed the agreement. The other three states with Great Lakes coastlines — Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin — declined invitations but could join the partnership later, an administration official said.
The agreement is modeled after another between the U.S. Interior Department and 10 Eastern states designed to support wind energy production in the Atlantic and encourage investment in new offshore wind technology.
"This agreement will enable states to work together to ensure that any proposed offshore wind projects are reviewed in a consistent manner, and that the various state and federal agencies involved collaborate and coordinate their reviews," Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett said.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said developing offshore wind energy would "promote economic development and create jobs, while reducing our dependence on foreign energy sources."
Among 10 federal agencies taking part are the Pentagon, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Developers would need state and federal approval to establish offshore wind farms. State governments own the Great Lakes bottomlands within U.S. territory, while a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would be required to erect the turbines and all 10 federal agencies would review the plans. The agreement will encourage the agencies to avoid "a hodgepodge of different processes" causing needless delays, said David Poneman, deputy secretary of the Energy Department.
The deal "should lower yield costs and improve processing of permit applications, as each government unit learns from others' experiences," said Tim Rylan, president of Apex Offshore Wind in Charlottesville, Va., which is considering a Lake Erie project.