Writing the rules on wind energy

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Harnessing the wind to help meet our need for electrical power seems like such a simple, pollution-free idea.

Ah, that it were so. But when you are talking about the possibility of generating power to serve millions of people, you are forging a new path involving government regulation, environmental protection, transmission logistics, public infrastructure and more. It gets even more complicated when you consider using the vast wind-energy potential of the Great Lakes.

So participants at this week’s International Submerged Lands Management Conference in Traverse City had plenty to talk about when it comes to considering placing huge, power-generating wind turbines off the shores of Michigan and other Great Lakes states and provinces.

A Michigan State University study released earlier this month estimated that placing 100,000 wind turbines in the lakes could produce nearly 322,000 megawatts of power – about one-third of all electricity now generated throughout the United States. Such a huge number of turbines dotting the lakes is never likely to happen for many reasons, but the report shows the enormous potential for generating power from the Great Lakes. Studies already are under way on the feasibility of establishing major wind farms in the lakes.

With that potential, however, comes a plethora of questions:

• What types of problems do wind turbines in the lakes pose for water quality, fish habitat, navigation and flight patterns for birds and aircraft? How should those problems be addressed?

• Do states/provinces have the authority to lease Great Lakes bottomlands to companies for placement of wind turbines? If so, how would the bottomland boundaries for states and provinces be decided, and how would rates be determined?

• How would wind-power operations be affected by the Great Lakes’ harsh winter weather?

• What would be the federal role, if any, in regulating a Great Lakes wind-power industry?

These and many more questions will need to be answered as wind energy develops in the Great Lakes in coming years. We agree with those experts who say a good first step would be to identify which areas of the lakes should be off-limits to turbines, including shipping lanes, corridors used by migrating birds and sites especially sensitive to environmental concerns, such as fish spawning grounds.

Lawmakers should begin working now to establish rules and regulations that will encourage prudent development while at the same time protect the environment and benefit consumers and taxpayers.

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