Environmentalists, unions back latest push for offshore wind on Lake Michigan
Lawmakers consider legislation to clear the way for development on Lake Michigan
A coalition of Democratic politicians, labor unions and environmental groups is advocating for a plan that would put an offshore wind farm off the coast of Lake Michigan on Chicago’s South Side.
Lawmakers are currently considering legislation to create a regulatory framework for offshore wind while directing the state to seek federal funding and a developer for the Lake Michigan project, which would need to be online by the end of 2030.
Advocates say the proposal, known as “Rust Belt to Green Belt,” is uniquely suited to bring jobs and economic development to Chicago’s South Side while positioning the state as a leader in renewable energy deployment. Opponents criticize its potential $680 million price tag for ratepayers and its potential impact on bird populations.
House Bill 2132, sponsored by Chicago Democrats Rep. Marcus Evans Jr. and Sen. Robert Peters, passed the Illinois House on March 24 by an 85-21 vote and now awaits consideration in the Senate.
It marks the latest step in Illinois’ ongoing shift toward renewable energy. In 2021, Illinois passed the landmark Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, or CEJA, which aims to phase out most carbon-emitting energy generation by 2045. With about one-third of the state’s energy generation currently coming from coal and natural gas plants, policymakers have been rushing to incentivize clean energy.
“CEJA came with two promises: fighting climate change and ensuring equity,” Peters said. “This is a project that does both.”
Environmental justice and jobs
Backers of the Rust Belt to Green Belt proposal say it will be an economic boon for Chicago’s South Side, which has been historically neglected when it comes to economic development.
“It’s time for us to have a renewable energy project that’s rooted in equity,” Peters said.
The project’s organizers say on their website it will bring 2,700 jobs in predominantly Black and brown communities. They also say it will bring $497 million of economic activity, the majority of which will come during the construction phase.
The bill would require the state to choose the future developer of the project based on the cost of the project, its viability, and an “equity & inclusion plan,” which will show how the project will create opportunities for underrepresented populations and equity investments in communities.
The project’s developer must also have at least one “community benefits agreement,” a contract that outlines how the development will help the community in which it is located.
Advocates say the project is a prime example of environmental justice, a framework that stresses the fair treatment of poor and marginalized communities, which disproportionately bear the weight of environmental hazards like industrial pollution and the effects of climate change.
The Sierra Club of Illinois, one of the state’s leading environmental organizations, has advocated for offshore wind on Lake Michigan for over a decade. Jack Darin, the organization’s director, applauded the environmental justice aspects of CEJA and of the Rust Belt to Green Belt initiative.
“This does raise the bar even further by making the equity component and the community benefits agreement some of the core aspects of the project,” Darin said in an interview.
Chynna Hampton is the equity director for the Climate Jobs Illinois campaign, a coalition of labor groups with a “pro-worker, pro-climate agenda.”
“There’s a green economy now and it’s critical for labor to be part of it,” Hampton said.
Hampton said that the jobs and labor organizing that would come with offshore development compliments other state efforts to bring climate jobs to the state, such as the Climate Works Preapprenticeship Program outlined in CEJA.
She added that labor advocates have been in talks with businesses and a potential developer for the project: Diamond Offshore Wind, a Boston-based company that has also been featured at events with Peters, Evans and community groups.
In addition to union support, the project has earned praise from at least one major business group in the region.
“This pilot program will not only result in hundreds of millions of dollars in economic growth, but it will also provide new, high-growth jobs with a focus on equity across every neighborhood in Chicagoland,” Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce head Jack Lavin said in a statement.
Illinois as a leader in the region
Proponents of the measure say that being an early leader in offshore wind is critical for Illinois. In a statement last week, Peters described the current situation on the Great Lakes as “a race between adjacent states to get the federal infrastructure investments and the jobs the offshore wind industry will bring.”
“Inevitably, this is going to happen,” Peters said in an interview. “Is Illinois going to be a leading force in doing it right?”
This project would have a minimum of 150 megawatts of “nameplate capacity,” the amount of energy the plant would generate under ideal conditions. This is smaller than most planned offshore wind developments, although the project’s advocates say it is meant as a pilot.
The U.S. currently only has two operational offshore wind farms, although more than a dozen are planned to be built off the east coast in the next 10 years and several leases have been signed for projects off the coast of California.
These projects are managed by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which also regulates offshore oil and gas drilling. The federal government hasn’t implemented such a framework for development in the Great Lakes, meaning regulation of any offshore development would be handled at the state level.
Over the past 12 years, Illinois has taken steps to establish a regulatory framework for offshore wind, including establishing broad regulatory guidance for offshore developments. The legislation under consideration in the Senate goes further by establishing a process to select developers creating a state fund to manage state support of offshore development.
One other project is planned in the Great Lakes, the Icebreaker Wind project off the coast of Ohio in Lake Erie. That project is planned to have a capacity of 20.7 megawatts and is scheduled for completion in 2026.
Although the Icebreaker project is moving forward, it was not without controversy. The Ohio Supreme Court had to rule on the development after several opponents to the project filed suit, claiming the state didn’t have enough data on the project’s impact on bird and bat populations.
Concerns over funding, lake privatization
Opponents of the proposal have been sharply critical of the funding method laid out in the bill, which includes potential rate increases for energy customers in northern Illinois.
The Illinois Power Agency, or IPA, buys energy from renewable sources using “renewable energy credits,” a financial asset that is paid for with rate increases on Illinois customers. CEJA limits these rate increases to 4.25 percent of what customers paid for energy in 2009.
The Rust Belt to Green Belt legislation would authorize the IPA to procure additional renewable energy credits to buy power from the potential offshore wind farm and bump the rate cap increase limit to 4.5 percent for eligible customers.
“It’s a relatively marginal rate increase,” Peters said.
Mark Denzler, the head of the Illinois Manufacturers Association, said he expects manufacturers to pay “the lion's share” of the increase in energy costs.
Denzler added that manufacturers take an “all of the above” approach to energy generation and support offshore wind development. Their issue is with how lawmakers are proposing to fund the project.
The Environmental Law & Policy Center, a non-profit environmental advocacy group, calculated the project, as described in the bill, would cost at least $34 million per year and $680 million over its lifetime.
“Ratepayers will have to pay for a project that’s more expensive than other developments,” David McEllis, the organization’s Illinois legislative director, said.
McEllis outlined the organization’s opposition to the bill in committee testimony in March. Among those concerns: the project could lead to violations of the “public trust doctrine,” the long held legal principle that Lake Michigan is held in trust by the state for public use.
“This project is an expensive and unnecessary grant of public land in Lake Michigan to a private developer,” McEllis said.
The state has a complex history with the public trust doctrine as it relates to developments on Lake Michigan, with federal court cases as far back as 1892 and as recently as 1990 blocking state attempts to cede portions of the lakebed to private developers.
The state’s “Lake Michigan Offshore Wind Advisory Council” called this doctrine an “issue of primary concern” to any development on the lake in a 2012 report. This finding, among others from the advisory council, prompted the state to pass the Lake Michigan Wind Energy Act in 2013, clarifying its authority to facilitate offshore wind development on Lake Michigan “so long as all affected public trust lands and waters of Lake Michigan remain under public ownership and control.”
Ohio’s regulations around the public trust were part of the legal opposition to the Icebreaker Wind development. The Ohio court system ultimately sided with the developers. The specifics of Ohio’s law and precedent are different from Illinois, so how the Illinois courts would respond to a challenge on this basis is an open question.
What about birds?
Some bird conservationists have raised concern that wind development in Lake Michigan would interrupt bird migration. The lake is home to the largest migration corridor for nocturnal birds in North America.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, part of the federal Department of Energy, released a report in March which identified more than 30 key challenges facing offshore wind development in the Great Lakes. The uncertain impact of these developments on bird and bat populations was among the highest-priority challenges, meaning that it impacts all of the Great Lakes, has potential for high-costs associated with it and represents a major barrier to development.
“The impacts of wind turbines on some species of birds and bats may contribute, along with other stressors, to population-level declines,” according to the report.
Fully researching the issue across the Great Lakes region could cost up to $8 million and take several years, according to the NREL report.
This echoes concerns cited by conservationists who oppose the legislation.
Bob Fisher is a spokesman for the Bird Conservation Network, a coalition of conservation organizations that studies bird behavior in the Chicagoland region. He was also a member of the state’s Lake Michigan Offshore Wind Energy Advisory committee before it disbanded. Fisher described the impact offshore wind would have on Lake Michigan’s bird population as a “very, very complicated question.”
In an email statement, Fisher said that the General Assembly should “pause” the Rust Belt to Green Belt project and “pass legislation providing funding for a comprehensive environmental analysis, collecting the best available science on bird use (nocturnal neotropical migrants and wintering waterfowl especially) of Illinois waters of Lake Michigan.”
While the Bird Conservation Network, the Illinois Audubon Society and the American Bird Conservancy all opposed the bill as it went through committee, not all bird advocates were against it.
Audubon Great Lakes, or AGL, has been a key supporter of Rust Belt to Green Belt as well as a player in Ohio’s Icebreaker project, helping to choose the development’s location. They also successfully advocated for collision detection systems for the project and for mandatory data collection on bird migration over Lake Erie.
AGL supports the legislation and the project as a whole.
“The cost to birds if we do not invest in renewable energy is unthinkable, as climate change stands to take a far greater toll than any threat posed by well-sited and operated clean energy infrastructure itself,” AGL’s Policy Director Adam Forrer wrote in a letter of support for the project.
Sierra Club leadership shared the sentiment, saying that the potential sites for the turbines would be clear of the most concentrated migration paths along the coastline.
“We need clean energy and we need it as quickly as possible,” Darin said.
The legislature’s role
Evans, describing HB 2132 on the House floor, said the legislation was “step one.”
“We’re a long way away, but we’ve got to get the ball rolling,” Evans said.
The bill passed the House on March 24 by a vote of 85-21. A previous version of the bill was also heard in a subject matter hearing in the Senate Energy and Public Utilities Committee in March.
Opposition in the legislature has come mostly from Republicans, although two Democrats voted against the bill: Reps. Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan, and Curtis Tarver, D-Chicago.
Both of their districts border Lake Michigan, with Tarver representing most of the coastline on Chicago’s South Side, including a proposed site of the development.
“This is not something my district wants,” Tarver said during debate on the House floor. “... There are many, many issues and many, many community groups who do not want this.”
Evans responded that the legislation does not identify a location and that the site of the project would come later in the process.
Peters, whose district includes all of Tarver’s, said that there was some confusion over location, although he identified Chicago’s port district as the “preferred spot” for development.
Although he declined to comment directly on Tarver’s opposition, Peters defended the plan’s benefits to the local community, citing the bill’s required community benefits agreement.
When asked about how likely the bill would be to advance, Peters said he felt “optimistic.”
“We’re in a good place for a variety of reasons,” Peters said. “We have immensely broad support from business, labor and a variety of environmental justice organizations. I think most members of the Senate are supportive of this issue.”
The bill awaits consideration in the Senate.
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