I see them every time I drive downstate, to Champaign, or Decatur, or Springfield: wind turbines, rising 300 feet above the prairie farms, giant white pinwheels that seem to be performing an endless circuit of side bends. And every time I see them, I think, “Why don’t we have some of those in Chicago?”
Chicago’s nickname “The Windy City” has more to do with the city’s reputation for boastfulness and self-promotion than the velocity of its breezes. But Illinois may in fact deserve the nickname “The Windy State”: We derive 6.83 percent of our energy from wind, a figure that increases every year, and at 4,887 megawatts, we’re sixth in the nation in wind power production.
We could be generating a lot more, though. Right now, the state’s wind farms are clustered in Central Illinois (according to this map, it’s the windiest part of the state). In 2016, wind farms generated more than $30 million a year in property taxes, a boon to the small towns that host them.
But still unharnessed are the winds coming off Lake Michigan, which produces what R&B singer Lou Rawls famously called “The Hawk.” As both a Great Lakes state and a prairie state, Illinois possesses natural advantages that could make us a major wind power.
In 2013, the General Assembly passed the Lake Michigan Wind Power Act, which established an Offshore Wind Energy Economic Development Task Force to study the feasibility of planting wind turbines in the lake. But the task force hasn't convened since, an oversight House Bill 3482, passed last month, aims to rectify. In Evanston, city officials and environmentalists have discussed building an offshore wind farm, but the project hasn’t gone anywhere, even though the city has committed to a goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2030.
Currently, there is only one offshore wind farm in the United States — the five-turbine Deepwater Wind project in Rhode Island — and Massachusetts is planning to establish its own 84-turbine farm off Martha’s Vineyard by 2022. Offshore wind farming has faced objections on aesthetic, environmental, and commercial grounds, from beachfront homeowners who think the turbines are an eyesore to fishermen who worry they will disturb marine life.
There is, however, a Chicago site that would be perfectly suited for a wind farm, and could really use the economic investment. That’s the 440-acre U.S. Steel South Works site. The steel mill closed in 1992, and since then, numerous developers have tried and failed to build a housing and shopping development in its place. Last year, Emerald Development killed a plan to build 20,000 housing units there, due to concerns about residual soil pollution.
In Lackawanna, New York, outside Buffalo, the old lakefront Bethlehem Steel mill is now the site of Steel Winds, a system of wind turbines capturing breezes off Lake Erie. Each of the 14 turbines generates 2.5 kilowatts a day — enough to power 1,000 homes in Lackawanna. Steel Winds pays the city $20,000 per turbine each year.
Granted, the turbines don’t generate as much money as the mill, which funded 75 percent of the municipal budget. But they’re more lucrative than a brownfield sitting idle, and they’ve since become a symbol of Buffalo, often appearing on TV during broadcasts of Bills games.
Like Steel Winds, South Works is also located on the shore of a Great Lake. A wind farm there could bring construction jobs and tax revenue to South Chicago. It could also provide a new function for an unused — and perhaps unusable — plot of land while generating renewable power for Illinois. It's a win-win all around.
Someone who wouldn't be a fan of the South Works wind farm? President Donald Trump, who recently claimed that noise from wind turbines causes cancer. There's no scientific evidence for this; more likely, Trump sees renewable energy as a threat to the declining coal industry he’s trying to prop up in an effort to win Pennsylvania a second time, so he’s going to say whatever suits him politically.
Illinois has a coal industry, too, but we’re also on top of that renewable energy thing. This year, state Rep. Will Davis, D-Hazel Crest, introduced the “Path to 100 Act,” which would commit the state to 40 percent renewable energy by 2030 and “[d]rive procurement of an estimated 6,000 MW of new utility scale solar, 6,500 MW of new wind power, [and] 7,500 MW of new residential, commercial and community scale solar.” And the wind industry is already throwing its support behind the act.
For most of this state’s history, it’s been powered by coal from southern Illinois. In the future, it will increasingly be powered by the winds that blow endlessly across central Illinois’s prairie and northern Illinois’s lake.