Evanston to study wind turbine project

April 13, 2010 8:54:12 PM PDT
Evanston's City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to study a project to build wind turbines in Lake Michigan.

Evanston residents and officials gathered inside the Morton Civic Center to consider the cutting edge in energy.

The project would take 40 wind turbines and put them in Lake Michigan, 9 miles out from water's edge in Evanston.

"The wind is amazing off shore. The estimated speed we think it's about 18 or more miles an hour which is just prime wind. So those are the reasons we think this is a really interesting project," said Nathan Kipnis, Citizens for a Greener Evanston.

For the last several years, Kipnis and Citizens for a Greener Evanston have been building a plan for a wind farm in the lake, due east of Northwestern University. It could produce, as envisioned, enough electricity to power 40,000 homes. Lake Michigan is comparatively shallow there, and the spot is wind rich.

Offshore wind farms have long operated in the North Sea and other waters off the European coastline, but there are no water-based wind farms yet in the U.S., though there are many proposals.

Evanston residents chimed in Tuesday on the possibility of charting new a course in generating energy in America. Some comments favored looking into the wind project, while other residents had concerns.

"We want to make sure that the research that is done for this particular site takes into account not only bird migration but also the habitat because we actually have ducks living out in the lake," said Libby Hill, Bird Conservation Network.

"Regardless of merits, this is an artificial intrusion of the last natural environment that we have in these parts. And I think people need to seriously consider the consequences," said Bill Schwimmer, resident.

Water-based turbines have a lot of wind to work with, but they're much more costly to build. Anchoring 40 of them on cement piers in 90 feet of water would not be cheap.

And what would it do to the vista?

"This is a very active lakefront area with all the boating and the beach people and just everybody enjoying, so it'd be interesting the thought of looking out at 40 turbines," said Andi Wich, Evanston resident.

Wich lives on the lakefront, and is not now opposed to the wind farm idea, but she has a lot of questions. So too does the City Council.

"We'd really like to know if this is realistic and if it's something we should continue to look at," said Carolyn Collopy, Evanston Sustainable Program.

The council is considering whether it makes sense to go forward with the lake wind farm idea and see if any developers might want to formally respond. If they do, there would be enormous regulatory challenges ahead.

"It's a long haul but we've got to start somewhere," said Kipnis.

Even if Evanston likes the idea, and developers jump on board, you just don't go build 80-foot tall wind turbines in the lake. Easily a dozen federal and state governmental agencies would have to first weigh in. From the Corps of Engineers, to the FAA, to Fish and Wildlife, to state natural resources, the EPA, the Coast Guard, and they would all be obligated to hear from the public. So if the idea were to ultimately be approved, by some estimates it's minimally seven to ten years away.