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Watch what people do, not what they say about renewable energy

December 3, 2023

In a Pew Research Center poll early last year 69 percent of American adults said that they “prioritize developing alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar, over expanding the production of oil, coal and natural gas.” Some 72 percent believe the federal government “should encourage the production of wind and solar power.”

So why are there no working wind farms in the waters of Great Lakes, one of the best wind resources in the country? You don’t have to take my word for it that this area is a prime location for wind turbines. Here’s what the National Renewable Energy Laboratory said in a June 2023 news release about its latest report on offshore Great Lakes wind resources:

Wind resource assessments estimate that the Great Lakes’ potential power capacity is 160 gigawatts for fixed-bottom wind turbines and about 415 gigawatts for floating wind energy systems. That wind energy resource potential exceeds the annual electricity consumption in five out of eight of the U.S. states bordering the Great Lakes.

Dig a little deeper into the report and you’ll find that Wisconsin’s share of potential offshore Great Lakes wind power production could exceed six times the state’s current consumption of electricity and Michigan’s share of its potential Great Lakes output could exceed 18 times the state’s current consumption. That’s a lot of electricity, and it’s all renewable.

For a society so favorable to wind power—at least when Americans talk to pollsters—it seems beyond strange that as of May 2023 the country has exactly 30 megawatts of operating offshore wind power off the coast of one state, Rhode Island. There are 800 megawatts under construction off Massachusetts’ shoreline. A megawatt is a million watts. That seems like a lot of capacity unless you consider that total U.S. generating capacity is over 1 million megawatts.

Inside Climate News decided to look into what halted the Great Lakes wind projects that seemed so promising just a decade ago. Among the many objections, one issue kept coming up: People don’t want to look at wind turbines dotting the Great Lakes. So visceral is this objection that even projects that promise to put turbines out of sight of land are dismissed.

Europeans are now used to seeing turbines in waters along the continent’s coastlines. Americans cannot seem to get used to the idea, so they work to block offshore development everywhere they can.

I have said in the past that the only way our current global society could operate on renewable energy exclusively would be first to reduce dramatically our use of energy overall, perhaps by 75 to 80 percent. This would involve major retrofitting of buildings of all types, the broad use of energy efficient design in all products, the banning of unnecessary energy use—there would be a big fight over what’s “unnecessary”—and caps on overall energy use. Then, we might have to get used to not having electricity 24/7 in the amounts we desire, at least until battery technology to store enough electricity is perfected. My premise is that it will be impossible to supply the amount of energy currently supplied by fossil fuels using renewable sources alone in any time frame that allows for a gradual energy transition (that is, before fossil fuel supplies decline and climate change becomes a possible extinction event).

Even if global society were willing to make such an accelerated transition and reduction in energy use—which seems extraordinarily improbable and also unfair to those already living with very little exogenous energy—the resistance which citizens are mounting in the United States and other places to wind power would almost certainly make the dream of a renewable-energy powered society a dead letter.

For however much a renewable energy transition is touted in the media, there is no transition taking place. Renewable energy is adding to our energy production capacity, but it is not leading to an overall reduction in fossil fuel use. In fact, fossil fuel use continues to climb.

I am convinced that this strange state of affairs persists because most citizens and most leaders have no idea how severe the risks are for global society, risks relating to climate change and energy depletion. I’m skeptical they would rally to a real solution even if they understood the scale and urgency of the problem because a real solution would involve considerable material sacrifice in the short run.

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: great lakes, wind power