More than 700 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind power are there for the taking on the Great Lakes, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). It figures to be a while before even the first gigawatt of that vast renewable resource is tapped, but today brought a step in that direction as the federal government and several Great Lakes states announced a memorandum of understanding intended to “streamline the efficient and responsible development” of wind power on the lakes.

Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York and Pennsylvania are in on the Great Lakes Offshore Wind Energy Consortium—leaving out Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin—along with 10 U.S. agencies. The five-year agreement [PDF], just nine pages without counting the long list of signatories, is straight-forward: The parties commit to providing staff and resources toward the offshore wind effort, with development of a regulatory roadmap a key goal. Their challenge will be to overcome concerns about the high cost of such development, and the environmental impact.

offfshore wind power cape wind
image via Shutterstock

The United States trails only China in cumulative wind power capacity, but none of it—zip, zero, nada—comes from offshore sites. This is in stark contrast to Europe, which as of the end of last year had 1,371 offshore turbines up and connected to the grid, with a total power capacity of 3,813 megawatts (MW) in 53 wind farms in 10 countries.

But the Obama administration has been trying to speed offshore wind development, creating a Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, forming an Atlantic Offshore Wind Energy Consortium with the states there, and using a U.S. Department of the Interior process called “Smart from the Start” that’s intended to smooth the regulatory process. Overall, the administration envisions a scenario that includes deployment of 10 GW of offshore wind generating capacity by 2020 and 54 GW by 2030.

The first tiny bit of that power could come form Virginia, where the state’s Marine Resources Commission just approved a single 5-MW offshore wind turbine for lower Chesapeake Bay. The project is scheduled to be completed before the end of 2013.

How much power might realistically come from the Great Lakes? The DOE, once again casting the administration’s pursuit of clean energy as part of an all-of-the-above strategy, said it doesn’t have to be much to make a difference, considering what’s available. “The development of even a small portion of the area’s offshore wind potential could create tens of thousands of clean energy jobs and generate revenue for local businesses,” the department said. “These efforts are in line with the steps the Administration has taken to increase domestic energy production, including increased production of our nation’s oil and natural gas resources.”

Ironically, one of the few Great Lakes wind projects that actually seems to be moving along right now is in the waters off a state not party to today’s agreement: A private, nonprofit group last year announced a revenue-sharing deal with Ashtabula, Cuyahoga, Lake and Lorain counties in Ohio for wind power generated from Lake Erie turbines. The group is hoping to put in place five 4-MW turbines for a generating capacity of 20 MW.

An even more ambitious project had been pursued by New York, but last fall the state’s Great Lakes Offshore Wind Project (GLOW) was shelved by the New York Power Authority. It said that while the project was technically feasible, the power generated by the proposed 150-megawatt (MW) capacity wind farm would have cost two to four times more than power generated from a similarly sized land-based wind power plant.

great lakes offshore wind
image via U.S. Department of Energy

That decision highlighted one of a couple of the major issues with offshore wind power development: its high cost (with the other, as is the case with onshore wind, being environmental impact). The one large-scale U.S. offshore wind project that has made it far along in the regulatory process, Cape Wind off Massachusetts, has faced persistent criticism—and lawsuits—regarding the cost of the power that it will deliver to the Northeast grid.

The DOE alluded to the cost challenge in its announcement today, noting hopefully that work under the agreement “will spur collaboration on innovative ways to address significant market barriers to offshore wind deployment” in the Great Lakes.

Canada, which of course has a claim to a portion of four of the five Great Lakes (Lake Michigan is entirely within the United States), has also struggled with wind power development on the lakes, with a 130-turbine, 300-MW project in Lake Erie stymied by the province of Ontario’s moratorium on offshore wind.