Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Gone with the Wind...

It’s hard to believe that the first quarter of my fellowship with the Great Lakes Commission is already behind me! I’ve spent the past three months settling into a groove at the Commission and getting to know all of my coworkers, and am happy to report that GLC staff welcomed me with open arms in June. Aside from quickly acquainting myself with new colleagues and the city of Ann Arbor, I managed to hit the ground running with the fellowship itself. Coming into this position after several years in the scientific/academic world has definitely been challenging. However, I am learning to see the world through a policy lens, and I could not ask for a better opportunity to gain this professional perspective.

It didn’t take long to become immersed in several of the many ongoing projects at the Commission. [A quick aside: I continue to be amazed at the number of interesting and work-intensive projects that GLC staff members take on. Their tireless commitment to creating high-quality products and to strengthening the environmental and economic integrity of the Great Lakes region is truly admirable.] I think it may be less overwhelming for all of us if I stick to one focus area per blog post, so I’ll just give you an extremely hurried and generalized idea of the types of projects I’ve been working on. Here are some of the heavy-hitters:

- Updating the Great Lakes Commission’s online database of legislative priorities (and other odds and ends in the realms of policy and advocacy)
- In partnership with the Michigan Departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Quality, writing and revising a strategic framework for the management and control of invasive Phragmites sp. for the state of Michigan
- Extensive work in the final stages of Phase I – and the initial stages of the Phase II proposal – of the Great Lakes Energy-Water Nexus Initiative. Check it out, it’s pretty cool!

And now for a little more detail…

A large portion of my work during this first quarter has been driven by the ongoing efforts of the Great Lakes Wind Collaborative (GLWC), an organization housed at the Great Lakes Commission. The GLWC is a multi-sector coalition of wind energy stakeholders working to facilitate the sustainable development of wind power in the binational Great Lakes region. I’ve been involved in every GLWC workgroup in some respect (e.g., Economic Development, Offshore Wind, Siting; Permitting, etc.), allowing me to familiarize myself with the many complexities of the broad field that is wind energy. It’s always interesting to study new topics, especially for life-long learners like myself, but let’s get real for a minute –the jargon was slightly irritating. Megawatts, shadow-flicker, JEDI analysis (alright, that one sounds pretty awesome), and on, and on, and on. It became clear to me in my first few days of working with the GLWC that I would potentially spend more fellowship hours with a dictionary and a copy of Wind Power for Dummies than I would spend making any sort of meaningful contribution to the Collaborative over the next year. But, as anyone could have predicted, I had no choice but to catch on – and fast – so I did. In fact, faster than I could have believed, the nuts and bolts of wind energy started to make sense, and soon I was approaching a level of professional comfort. It also doesn’t hurt to have a little fun on the job…

Perhaps the most fun – and most helpful – aspect of my early work with the GLWC was my participation in a public perception survey in partnership with Grand Valley State University. For this project, I traveled with several GLC colleagues to maritime festivals throughout southeast Michigan, where we talked with coastal communities about offshore wind energy development in the Great Lakes. Local participants were asked to examine several photo-simulations of offshore wind farms, and to express, via the ever popular throw-marble-in-bowl technique, their approval, disapproval, or uncertainty about the hypothetical development based on their visual assessment. We wanted to get a general sense of how the average person – that is, the portion of the public with neither a strong commitment to nor repugnance for offshore wind energy – would receive such a project if it was given legs. The results were interesting (a healthy majority in favor of wind energy development regardless of the distance offshore, in case you were wondering), but what was more interesting was the dialogue we were able to foster with the local communities.

Through these interactions, I spoke with people of varying levels of education and experience, and responses were all over the map: concern, anger, benign interest, enthusiastic support, aggression, trepidation, etc. You name it, we talked with someone who felt it. The entire experience was fun, informative, and eye-opening. I realized that a lot of people in Michigan and in the Great Lakes Basin in general, regardless of what side of the fence they happen to be on, want to talk about offshore wind energy. They care. They are informed. If they are not informed, they want to be informed. I believe that public buy-in is an integral factor in the process of offshore wind power getting off the ground in the Great Lakes. There are sizable knowledge gaps that may hinder our ability to take advantage of the tremendous wind resources in this region (and to move toward a more sustainable energy future) if they remain unfilled. The better informed we all are, the better equipped we will be to make smart decisions for our environment and our economy. This particular project may be at a close, but the issue certainly is not. Let’s keep the dialogue going. Ask questions; feed your mind. Get out there and talk wind, people!

Stay tuned for what’s in store for my second quarter as a Sea Grant Fellow!
-Cassie B.
GLC Fellow, 2011

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