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Great Lakes Champ: Offshore Wind Can Work for Michigan

Birkholz poised for Snyder’s possible push for turbine ‘regulatory framework'

November 30, 2011 | By Jim Dulzo

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When Governor Rick Snyder appointed former state Senator Patty Birkholz as director of Michigan’s Office of the Great Lakes, an attorney and law professor dedicated to protecting the state’s water called it “fantastic news for Michigan and the Great Lakes.”

It could also be good news for developing Great Lakes wind power.

Developing wind power on the Great Lakes would create a wide variety of onshore and offshore jobs in Michigan.

Ms. Birkholz, who hails from Saugatuck, is best known for her work on water issues: From the Great Lakes Compact and Michigan’s water withdrawal law to state regulations for freighter ballast water discharge, she was often at the center of state legislative efforts to protect the lakes.

Then, last year, near the end of her final term, Ms. Birkholz helped draft legislation defining how the state regulates offshore windpower, but lawmakers didn’t act on the proposals. This past summer the Muskegon Chronicle said Ms. Birkholz would play a key role in Great Lakes wind power, and quoted her predicting the governor would turn to the issue this fall.

But fall’s almost over, with hardly a whisper about wind power from Mr. Snyder. So clean-energy advocates are hosting an online petition urging Mr. Snyder to move ahead with offshore wind regulations.

Great Lakes Bulletin News Service interviewed Ms. Birkholz by phone at her Lansing office. She still strongly supports offshore wind power, but wouldn’t predict whether and when Governor Snyder would act on the issue.

GLBNS: Could you describe your previous work on offshore wind?

Ms. Birkholz: I spent hundreds of hours in the Legislature’s wind working group working on legislation. We had two main bills; they’d been vetted by all the major state regulatory departments, as well as a lot of people from outside. We finalized them in very good working order in late fall 2010, but we were not able to move them because everyone was so focused on the immediate economy.

We also worked with (the) Great Lakes Offshore Wind Council (GLOW). We took a lot of their work and incorporated it into our draft bills.

GLBNS: So, are you now looking to next year for the governor to act on this?

Ms. Birkholz: Let me put it this way: The governor is planning to do a Natural Resources/Energy Special Message this spring. I’m sure there are a lot of different ideas being put forward; I’ve expressed some of mine. He’s reviewing those. But the final decisions are his. Once those are made, my office will move with them.

We agree that it is very critical for us as a state to move into alternative energy. What we need is a healthy portfolio. We are the Mitten State, so we do not have a lot of transmission capability from the surrounding states or Ontario, because the lakes are in the way. So if we can gain some homegrown power, we are better off.

And that means a portfolio, and wind is one of the cleanest energy sources there is.

GLBNS: What is your reaction to efforts to ban offshore wind power in Michigan?

Ms. Birkholz: If you read the GLOW report, you’ll see that not all areas are good for the technology we have now, but that there are also good areas for windpower development.

We need to look at that and what the science is telling us. There is the distance issue; I do understand that there are people who don’t want them in their view shed, and that needs consideration.

I just don’t see there being thousands of them all up and down our lakeshore. But I do think that if we are going to be more energy independent, we need to look at alternatives. Many of our best and brightest are killed in wars over oil and even coal, and we are better off as a country being more energy independent, but we need a healthy portfolio.

GLBNS: There are many companies in Michigan manufacturing parts for wind turbines. Are they eager to see the state promote offshore wind?

Ms. Birkholz: I worked with a lot of those companies; some are in my former senate district. I’ve been very supportive of them. Many are up and running and selling products to other states and maybe even other countries. This is a very good industry, a clean industry, an industry that can make that transition from building autos or boats to making parts for wind turbines.

They have the skill set in their employee base to fairly quickly retrain and these would be good, high-quality jobs that we can have here.

But all have told me they have to be able to sell here to stay here, which makes perfect sense. That message is being carried to the governor.

GLBNS: Well, how important is wind power to Michigan, potentially?

Ms. Birkholz: These are good jobs; some are also very highly skilled. A lot of people have said to me, ‘My daughter is an engineer and she can’t get a job in Michigan.’ That is changing, but that was the conversation I heard for a long time. Wind does provide a lot of good jobs not only for manufacturing, but also for business and engineering.

These are the kinds of jobs that we want to provide in Michigan.

GLBNS: Have renewable portfolio standards made much difference to Michigan’s wind industry? Should they be strengthened?

Ms. Birkholz: Well, I actually helped write that legislation and yes, the standards have made a difference. The RPS has helped propel some renewables development, and so have the incentives for some of the other renewables—not only to be developed, but also to be used.

Should they be increased? That is a good discussion that needs to be had. I know there are some who would not want them increased, but the more energy we can make here, the better off our state is.

GLBNS: You said the governor is getting advice on renewables for a possible spring Special Message. What are you and your office urging him to do?

We’re involved in issues around policy for natural resources connected to the Great Lakes, but the decision about whether to try to move the offshore wind legislation is with him. 

GLBNS: A group of Michigan clean energy advocates is circulating a petition asking the governor to develop a regulatory framework for offshore wind. Is that campaign helpful to that cause?

Ms. Birkholz: I wasn’t aware that they were doing that, although I had heard talk of it. I will leave that to their decision-making process.

GLBNS: The petitioners want framework legislation that deals with state and local government, permit revenues for funding regulation, transparency and public input, protecting the lakes, site selection, leasing, permitting, decommissioning, and royalties. Is there much similarity between that list and the legislation you sponsored last year?

Ms. Birkholz: That sounds very similar to the bills that we had introduced last year. But I have not seen what the petitioners are saying in writing.

GLBNS: Do the wind manufacturing companies view offshore regulations as a priority?

Ms. Birkholz: I know there are several companies that have started to get into the wind energy issue and have actually started building parts for offshore wind turbines, but those are going to other countries.

If you talk to any of those companies, they will tell you that having a presence in Michigan requires a regulatory framework that would allow for offshore wind to be both built and deployed. They will tell you that it is very important.

In fact, if someone applied to do offshore wind right now, because there is no specific framework, the application would have to be acted on by a framework that is not designed for offshore windpower. And if it occurs outside of Michigan waters, but still in our view shed and watershed, the other states or Canada would be the regulatory agency.

GLBNS: Have you seen research indicating offshore turbines could harm the lakes or fishery?

Ms. Birkholz: I am probably the wrong person to ask; I don’t keep up on the research. I have heard comments saying there could be problems, but I’ve also heard comments within our fisheries division, and from people who have knowledge of flight migratory patterns, that those problems can be accommodated.

My understanding is that in most cases where they’ve deployed offshore wind, they have worked around such issues like bird migration. They either shut down or slow down the turbines during those migrations. In Chicago they turn down the lights on tall buildings at night so migrating birds don’t fly into them. There are mitigating techniques, and my understanding is that wind companies are willing to use them.

And I was quite surprised when fishermen told me that they thought the bases of the turbines would make great fish habitat. I was expressing some concern about that and they said ‘Oh no,’ and started citing examples...of kinds of fish that would use it for habitat.

GLBNS: Despite the growing support for wind power, there can be stiff opposition from some people who are not convinced of its benefits. This kind of opposition has stalled some onshore projects and there's been some strong resistance to offshore proposals too. What needs to be done to build public support for offshore wind?

Ms. Birkholz: One of the best ways is to try to help people understand the issue. The GLOW Council held some excellent on the road meetings around the state. They talked about the good things with wind, and about the things that some would perceive as negatives.

They showed people simulated photos of wind turbines from different angles, and at different distances from shore, so that people could see what it really would look like. They also addressed migratory patterns.

I would encourage you to look at their report—and their slide show. I thought that was one of the best things I’ve seen about this. I was amazed: Some of the things I had concerns about, or that I wasn’t sure about—I found out they were wrong after reading the science and the report and going to the public programs. But the funding for those programs was limited, and it couldn’t go to many communities.

It was amazing how some people came in, practically slamming their fists on the table, saying they didn’t want it in their view shed, not in their front yard or side yard or backyard or anywhere, who left the meetings either with changed minds or a more neutral view. They found out it wasn’t nearly as bad as they thought.

Really, on a clear day, particularly at six miles out, the wind farm was just a blip on the horizon. Even at three miles out they were more difficult to see than many people expected. It’s not like they are going to be right in your face.

GLBNS: What was your secret to success working on the divisive, emotional issue of water withdrawals?

Ms. Birkholz: We met with a lot of editorial boards, did a lot of what we fondly called road shows, talking to farm bureaus, rotaries, chambers, local citizen groups, environmental, and natural resources groups.

There were a lot questions and concerns. We take water very seriously in this state. So, it has to be education, education, education. Once people understood it and saw how may people and organizations they respected were supporting it, they supported it, too.

It didn’t just happen overnight. It took support from a lot of people willing to go out and help people understand it.

GLBNS: Well, what do you think is going to happen with offshore wind power in Michigan?

Ms. Birkholz: Obviously, the governor has a lot on his plate. So he is working hard on his first several and many priorities. And then we will see what happens next.

There already have been a number of jobs, of new businesses relocating or expanding in our state, and businesses already here reinventing themselves into making offshore wind. A serious economic boom, and serious income, can happen from more wind companies locating here. Having that legislation will be crucial. So I see an economic incentive to getting it done. But I also know there are people who just don’t want wind turbines, so there are some challenges.

GLBNS: But are you optimistic or pessimistic about offshore wind in Michigan?

Ms. Birkholz: Well, I’m always optimistic. 

Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s senior editor and reports on clean-energy and coal issues. Reach him at jimdulzo@mlui.org.

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