Friday, September 28, 2012

Beyond Coal: advancing a vision of clean energy for the Great Lakes

After spending the past couple of days at the Great Lakes Wind Collaborative annual meeting, I remain very optimistic about the future of wind in the Great Lakes region.   Participants in this year’s meeting painted a clear picture: the development of clean, renewable wind power—both onshore and offshore—brings incredible benefits to our region and is essential to the long term health of both our economy and our environment. 

Our states are already experiencing job growth, community renewal and affordable energy from on-shore wind development.   And if we invest in the development of an offshore wind industry here, to capitalize on the outstanding wind resource that exists in close proximity to major load centers, we could generate tens of thousands of new jobs in manufacturing, construction, and long term operations and maintenance.

But economic development aside, we cannot afford to wait.  We must move quickly to dramatically increase our reliance on clean, renewable, home-grown energy sources.  Our region currently gets three-quarters of its electricity from coal, which is all too often burned in old, inefficient power plants with limited or no modern pollution controls.  Our reliance on coal is leaving us with a legacy of mercury-contaminated lakes, asthma-inducing bad-air days, toxic ash spills and—worst of all—a rapidly changing climate that is already wreaking havoc on communities and ecosystems around the world.

A flood of inexpensive natural gas is challenging the dominance of coal.  But while burning natural gas emits less pollution than coal, its extraction can cause major environmental problems and it is not a long-term solution.  Eventually, the price will go up as supplies go down.  Like all fossil fuels, it is a limited resource.

Wind, on the other hand, is not.  It offers an unlimited supply of local clean energy and the potential to renew our cities and manufacturing centers across the region.  There is more than enough on-shore and offshore wind capacity to power our entire region and then some.  And as I learned at the Great Lakes Wind Collaborative meeting, it is aggressive but possible to generate as much as 80 percent of our power from renewable energy sources, while maintaining the integrity of the grid (for more information check out the report from NREL).

One key to realizing those benefits is to develop the resource appropriately, siting wind farms in a way that minimizes environmental and social impacts and that is acceptable to local communities.  I am honored to be working with the Collaborative’s Siting and Mapping workgroup to develop a regional, GIS-based siting tool that will help us more effectively engage local communities and make smart, sustainable decisions on the siting of onshore and offshore wind farms.  We invite all interested parties to join us in developing a tool that will be useful to and used by key stakeholders across the region.

In addition, we must determine how to spread the cost and the risk of launching a new industry in order to bring offshore wind to the Great Lakes.  I urge the Collaborative to engage on this challenging question.  There are tremendous benefits of building an offshore industry here, but it will not happen unless the early costs associated with being the “first mover” are shared regionally or even nationally. 
The Collaborative should seriously investigate and debate the options for spreading the costs, and we should be creative and think big.  While the obstacles may seem large, we must consider innovative options such as a renewable energy power authority or regional integrated resource planning in order to achieve a meaningful shift toward a clean energy future in this region. 

The potential benefits of this vision are huge and the cost of doing nothing is too high.   I want to leave a better world to my boys—one that includes clean air, clean water and a strong economic future.  Getting off of coal and developing a more sustainable clean energy future is a key part of developing that legacy.  Let’s work together to figure out how to make that vision a reality, in a way that works for the region’s communities, businesses, industries, utilities and others. 

We are all in this together and I believe that, together, we can solve this problem and address this challenge—I am an optimist.

Emily Green

Great Lakes Program Director
Sierra Club

1 comment:

  1. Very well said Emily - I'm with you 100% (sorry I couldn't be physically with you in Erie) on the importance of removing barriers to renewables. I think you're focusing on the right things and especially like your ideas on regionalism... Keep pressing ahead, someday we will get beyond coal! Mike K.