Lake Michigan wind farm touted for Southeast Side

Residents have a number of concerns and questions about local job creation and other potential benefits to the community.

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A bill in the Illinois Legislature would create the potential to build an offshore wind energy farm in Lake Michigan.

A bill in the Illinois Legislature would create the potential to build an offshore wind energy farm in Lake Michigan.

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A pair of state lawmakers touted a plan to create Chicago’s first offshore wind farm on the Southeast Side at a meeting Wednesday night while residents peppered them with questions about how such a project benefits the community.

Sen. Robert Peters, who was joined by state Rep. Marcus Evans at the South Chicago Branch library, said he’s pushing the idea for the wind farm because he believes it will help transform the economy of the Southeast Side, which is home to many polluting manufacturers and has never rebounded from the loss of steel jobs four decades ago. The plan, he said, would create hundreds of jobs and help the South Side reap the rewards of clean energy.

“This is a unique opportunity to be at the forefront of something,” Peters said. He dubbed the effort, a proposal contained in a bill in the Illinois General Assembly, as the “Rust Belt to green belt.” Plans for a similar Ohio project are in the works for offshore Lake Erie.

The legislation doesn’t specifically guarantee a wind farm on the Southeast Side. Rather, it sets up a process that allows the state to seek federal dollars so it can provide tax credits to private developers who would bid on a project. 

Peters and Evans, both representing Chicago’s South Side, said they hope the windmills can be placed near the Illinois International Port District at East 95th Street. At a nearby area — possibly the former US Steel South Works site — workers would build the concrete foundations for the wind turbines, they said.

Illinois needs to find new clean sources of electricity, such as wind and solar, as the state phases out coal and natural gas power sources. The lawmakers touted an opportunity to bring jobs to the predominantly Black and Latino South Side. The initial phase would build an estimated 12 to 24 windmills about 15 miles from shore. 

Cheryl Johnson, executive director of People for Community Recovery, was among several attendees who questioned the legislators about how nearby residents can be assured labor unions would include them in job training. In an interview, she said she supported the concept of the wind farm. 

Chynna Hampton, equity director at the labor-backed group Climate Jobs Illinois, said unions were committed to training community members. Her group, led by the Illinois AFL-CIO, supports the offshore wind bill. 

Some residents were cool to the idea, asking how the presence of a wind farm benefits the community. 

“We can build them here and they can be placed elsewhere,” said Peggy Salazar, a longtime community activist who said she felt placing wind turbines was another effort to stick the Southeast Side with something that North Side residents don’t want.

Salazar said she heard a similar proposal some years ago and, at the time, “it was made clear to me the North Shore didn’t want anything to block their view.”

Samuel Corona, an organizer with the community group Alliance of the SouthEast, said a wind energy developer should be required to enter into an agreement that puts in place specific benefits for nearby residents, including local hiring and job training. In an interview, Corona said there should also be a program that teaches skills to high school students, and he left open the possibility of other demands based on future community input. 

“Every development is unique,” he said. “We draw on community input and build out from there.” 

Chris Wissemann, chief executive of Boston-based Diamond Offshore Wind, said hiring goals can be written into developers’ proposals. A resident of Evanston, Wissemann said he might be interested in bidding on a project if it moves forward.

In an interview, Peters said the meeting Wednesday night is the beginning of what he described would be a “strong community engagement process.” 

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust. 

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