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Muskegon’s future might be blowing in the wind. Literally.
And it could mean hundreds of new jobs and the development of energy that is both plentiful and clean.
Local leaders want Muskegon to become the center of a Great Lakes industry that would produce wind energy and the turbines and parts necessary to make it happen. Such a vision would involve placing dozens – if not hundreds – of 325-foot wind turbines, or windmills, on floating anchor points 22 miles off the Lake Michigan shoreline that couldn’t be seen from land.
Parts for the towers and turbines could be generated by Muskegon manufacturers, which have experience in fabricating metals. Today, many turbine parts are built overseas and in other states.
“The state of Michigan is endowed with very large wind energy potential,” said Imad Mahawili, director of the Michigan Alternative & Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon. “This renewable wind energy can be harnessed using advanced wind turbines that have been successfully proven over many years in various parts of the world.”
Mahawili hopes to spark a West Michigan Offshore Wind program by temporarily erecting one of the wind turbines on Muskegon Lake. A yearlong test of the turbine would help officials gauge, among other things, what effect such a tower might have on the Lake Michigan environment.
It also could spark a public debate. Community leaders aren’t sure how the public will react to a temporary tower on Muskegon Lake, but a similar Atlantic Ocean project off the coast of Cape Cod caused a massive outcry. However, those towers were visible from the shoreline.
Energy, energy and more energy
It’s there. It’s plentiful. And it’s expensive.
The winds over Lake Michigan are some of the strongest and steadiest in the country, rivaling those that fan the upper Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Yet, harnessing that wind has been expensive relative to the cost of oil. But with oil prices rising and Congress eager to limit “greenhouse” gases associated with global warming, the timing appears to be right for exploring wind energy.
A power consultant from Jackson has calculated that an 8,806-square mile area in the middle of Lake Michigan from northern Beaver Island to southern Chicago could house 36,400 towers – equally spaced 2,050 feet apart – none of which could be seen from the shoreline.
While McCleer Power Inc. is not suggesting that many towers be located on the lake, Mahawili said the power that 36,400 turbines could produce is startling. They would generate 182,000 megawatts, the equivalent to 180 large nuclear power plants. By comparison, Muskegon’s B.C. Cobb coal-fired power plant produces 320 megawatts.
“Even if the Lake Michigan wind calculation is off by a factor of 10, that still is (18,000 megawatts),” Mahawili said, pointing out that Michigan produces only 25,000 megawatts of power from all sources today. “And that’s huge.”
Mahawili has brought Muskegon leaders to the GVSU energy center to discuss his vision of a Muskegon-based West Michigan Offshore Wind Initiative that includes seeking the $1.5-$2 million needed for a temporary wind turbine on Muskegon Lake off the shoreline of Edison Landing.
MAREC joined forces with Leonard Bohmann, an electrical engineer and head of the Michigan Technological University’s School of Engineering, to push a Great Lakes Offshore Wind initiative to the Michigan 21st Century Job Fund, but it was turned down.
Mahawili is now gathering Muskegon leaders to push for an initiative on Lake Michigan wind that doesn’t rely on state government’s immediate support. Key is raising the money to put a test wind tower on Muskegon Lake.
“This is the start of offshore wind,” he said of the proposed Muskegon Lake turbine. “We want the people of Muskegon to do this. This should come from the grass roots. People can then come and see it and get our results.”
Muskegon officials are listening.
“It is something we have to take a look at,” Muskegon Mayor Steve Warmington said of the test wind turbine. “You have to look at the big picture. This is all about environmentally ‘green’ power, jobs and economic development. We have to be open-minded about it.”
Ed Garner, president of the economic development agency Muskegon Area First, is excited about the job possibilities wind energy could create. The GVSU energy center plays a huge role in sparking interest in such future technologies as offshore wind, he said.
“It’s all about validation of the (offshore) wind turbines,” Garner said. “(A Muskegon Lake turbine) is the way to demonstrate all of this. It will draw attention to our area. We then are in a stronger position to bring companies here to move the vision forward.”
Off-shore wind turbines already are being used on the East Coast and in European countries such as Denmark. Mahawili, however, said wind data here needs to be collected and a number of issues addressed before any investor would be willing to finance a private sector initiative.
The GVSU energy center has begun its exploration of wind energy with a small 1.8-kilowatt wind turbine on a 50-foot pole in front of the Edison Landing facility. It allows the energy center to integrate the small amount of electricity from the $16,000 unit into its energy self-sufficient building.
But GVSU wasn’t the first small-scale turbine to be erected here. The Muskegon Area Career Tech Center along U.S. 31 south of the Muskegon River has attracted attention with its 10-kilowatt wind turbine since the facility opened in 2005. The turbine is used to offset the tech center’s electrical needs and provides students with hands-on experience with an alternative-energy device.
Tech Center Principal Michael Carpenter said he is sold on the future of wind power and loves the idea of exploring its potential on Lake Michigan. “With the wind out on the water, it seems like a great idea,” Carpenter said.
No one better understands the difficulties of a start-up wind energy development than Rich VanderVeen, president of the Lowell-based Mackinaw Power – the first company with commercially operating wind turbines in Michigan. VanderVeen continues the slow and difficult development of a wind farm in Oceana County and, although not prepared to develop offshore wind, he is highly supportive of the concept.
Of all of the potential problems facing wind turbines on the Great Lakes, the environmental concerns probably would pose the greatest public alarms and objections. However, the head of the Michigan Environmental Council in Lansing, former state Sen. Lana Pollack, has written favorably about wind energy production in the state’s future.
Without specifically addressing wind turbines on the Great Lakes, council officials say the environmental group would not rule out offshore wind developments. Michigan Environmental Council spokesman Hugh McDiarmid said the council has not taken a formal policy position on Great Lakes wind energy, but would look at projects on a case-by-case basis.
“I think we’d support the right proposal for wind turbines on the lakes,” McDiarmid said.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm also has spoken on the need for Michigan to become a leader in alternative energy, including wind power. Granholm’s spokeswoman Liz Boyd said the governor is willing to explore tapping energy from the winds and waves on the lakes.
Since Mahawili came to Muskegon to open the GVSU energy center four years ago, he has preached the need for favorable public policy from Lansing.
One of the two most important issues that state policy makers face is “renewable portfolio standards” that would mandate a percentage of all electrical production comes from renewable sources, such as wind, by a specific date. The other issue is “buy-sell” agreements providing an economic incentive for investors to fund projects that would sell electricity to the grid.
Mahawili wants to begin the West Michigan Offshore Wind Initiative with the test turbine on Muskegon Lake.
But first, wind supporters must raise the $1.5-$2 million to make it happen.
“This would be the start of offshore wind in Michigan,” Mahawili said. “Testing is the bottom line. Seeing will be believing.”
Posted by Dave Alexander
6 January 2008
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