A still from Laura Israel’s documentary Windfall
A still from Laura Israel’s documentary Windfall

Back in late winter, when a volunteer committee picked a documentary about the dark side of wind energy for Evanston’s Talking Pictures Festival, no one was expecting the issue to blow up just in time for the screening this Friday. But it has. Last week Interior Secretary Ken Salazar gave his blessing to Cape Wind, a 130-turbine wind farm to be built in the ocean off Cape Cod—the first such project to win approval in the U.S.—and opponents (including the Kennedys and the Wampanoag Indians) who fear it’ll mar views and harm fishing, wildlife, and sacred areas promised a court fight.

And much closer to home, on April 13, the Evanston City Council issued an RFI—a request for information—on constructing what may turn out to be 40 400-foot-tall turbines in Lake Michigan.

The documentary, Laura Israel’s Windfall, tells the story of what happened when developers offered folks in Meredith, New York, sign-up bonuses for the right to put a wind turbine on their property. Meredith’s residents are a mix of retirees and part-timers from Manhattan and struggling longtime farmers, and the money combined with the carbon-cutting benefits proved to be a powerful double-green incentive. The town board—including members with apparent conflicts of interest—ignored the recommendation of its own planning group and enacted regulations favorable to the developers. When residents started to get a sense of the turbines’ mammoth scale, strobe-like shadows, and unrelenting noise (seven-ton blades described as “thumping or ripping” the air at up to 200 miles per hour), some began to organize. The issue created rifts among the townspeople, but they unseated the board at the next election and ultimately kept the turbines out.

Of course the situation is different in Evanston, where the turbines would be four to nine miles out in the lake. Seen from the Evanston shore on the clearest of days, they”d appear to be “less than half the height of your pinky fingernail turned sideways and held at arm’s length,” according to Nathan Kipnis, a local architect and task-force cochair for Citizens for a Greener Evanston, which is promoting the idea (and has assembled a list of more than 200 other initiatives for reducing the city’s carbon footprint 13 percent by 2012). Compared to Meredith’s exposure, Kipnis says, it’s the difference between “being right next to a big building or four suburbs away.”

Evanston is a promising location for turbines, Kipnis says, because it has shallow water offshore and what the CGE folks believe to be “excellent wind.” It’s better than Chicago because there’s no big skyscraper cluster to create turbulence. Exactly how excellent Evanston’s wind is, however, is still a matter of speculation, since it’s never been tested. The closest measurement was taken at the Carter H. Harrison water intake crib, 80 feet above lake level and two miles off Oak Street Beach, where breezes average about 15 miles per hour. “Higher up and way further out, without any tall buildings in the area, it’ll be much better,” Kipnis says. The power generated by a turbine goes “to the cube of wind speed,” he adds. “Double the wind speed and you get eight times the power. We’re looking for 18 miles per hour or more. If we can hit 20, that would be great.”

Forty turbines could theoretically produce enough energy to power all the residences—though not all of the businesses—in Evanston, Kipnis says. But they’re more expensive to build in the water than on land and, even with hefty average breezes, it’s likely that the energy produced by them would cost more, at least initially, than energy from traditional sources. CGE estimates that it’ll take $400 million to get a 40-turbine project up and running—which is why a developer and not the city would be the probable owner. And, because the wind is notoriously changeable, it’s not like Evanston could simply abandon its old, bad energy sources. Neal Blair—a professor in Northwestern University’s civil and environmental engineering department who lives in Evanston, supports the proposal, and thinks the turbines are “beautiful”—says we wouldn’t be able to store excess wind energy, so something like coal or gas would still have to be available to take up the slack.

Kipnis says that although numerous government entities would have to approve it, a wind farm in the lake would have fewer bureaucratic hurdles to clear than those in the ocean because there would be less federal involvement. Cape Wind was held up for eight years, even though ocean-based turbines have a track record based on two decades of operation in Denmark (the current center of the industry) and other parts of the world.

No one anywhere has put a platoon of industrial turbines into a freshwater lake yet. But other Great Lakes cities are gearing up to try—including Cleveland, which has completed a feasibility study for a five- to ten-turbine pilot project but is still studying the environmental impact. There’s been some talk about what the turbines might do to bats and the birds that migrate along the coast of Lake Michigan, but little or none about the environmental effects on the water and its life forms.

The CGE Web site has a 17-page FAQ featuring links to the Illinois Wind Energy Association and the American Wind Energy Association. Both are industry trade groups. The IWEA, with members like Edison and Invenergy, is “dedicated to improving the business environment for wind energy in Illinois” and the AWEA’s leadership includes companies like GE, BP, and Siemens Power. Federal and state governments are providing significant subsidies and tax credits to wind-energy projects.

Alderman Judy Fiske, whose lakefront ward stands directly west of the proposed wind farm, says information the council has received doesn’t include the possible “downside.” She read a three-page list of questions into the record before voting to go ahead with the Request for Information—among them, “Why in the lake when it’s two or three times more expensive than on land?” and “Will any revenue come back to the city?”

“People were thinking that Evanston was going to get free electricity,” Fiske says, “that there were going to be substantial benefits to the city by doing this, and I couldn’t find any.” She worries about setting a “precedent of private development in the lake” but believes the final decision will be made by the state because Evanston doesn’t own the land that far out. State senator Jeffrey Schoenberg—whose district includes Evanston and who sponsored a bill (now on Governor Quinn’s desk) to extend a wind-turbine property tax break through 2016—says he’s “heartened by the council’s decision to move forward.”

Evanston’s sustainable programs director, Carolyn Collopy, says that at this point, “We’re just putting feelers out there to see if there’s interest. We’re looking to see what the feasibility is. How much energy would you have to generate to make it cost-effective? Who would own it? Who would finance it? Developers will know the process,” she says, and responses to the RFI will largely come from them.