MUSKEGON – The first-of-its-kind wind-assessment buoy planned for Lake Michigan waters is on a company’s drawing board.
The $3.7 million project, spearheaded by Grand Valley State University’s Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center, received federal approval from the Department of Energy on Wednesday, and MAREC put a down payment on construction of the floating buoy/research platform on Thursday.
The plan is to have the unique buoy, equipped with laser-sensor technology to measure wind speeds out over Lake Michigan, in position about four miles off Muskegon in September. The buoy will be moved in the coming years to collect data from other locations in Lake Michigan.
Although multi-faceted, the three-year, wind-assessment study’s primary objective is to gain a better understanding and gather hard data on offshore wind energy.
The buoy, called WindSentinel, will be constructed by AXYS Technologies of British Columbia and will be equipped with a Vindicator laser wind sensor manufactured by Catch the Wind of Virginia. This will be the first time the relatively new laser-sensor technology will be used on a floating platform to measure offshore wind.
MAREC Director Arn Boezaart, who has been working on the project and its funding for 18 months, said he is excited to have the final approval and looking forward to designing the specifics of the project with the multiple universities and agencies involved.
“The WindSentinel will provide extended season, real-time in-the-water data using the most advanced wind-testing equipment,” Boezaart said.
Boezaart described the buoy with laser-sensor technology as being much more flexible, mobile and cost-effective than constructing a meteorological tower with an anemometer.
“It will provide a new level of highly mobile research capacity that is able to explore the potential of possible future offshore wind development on the Great Lakes,” he said.
The data gathered is expected to play a role in the oft-discussed and sometimes controversial plan to erect large wind turbines in the Great Lakes for energy production. The issue came to the forefront in West Michigan last year when a private development firm proposed a regional wind project, including wind farms in Lake Michigan off Ludington and Grand Haven.
Boezaart said the purpose of the project is to meet the request for real-time data out on the lake and other people can make decisions based on that data. He said university researchers distance themselves from the heated debate that erupted last year.
The unique collaborative effort features research partners from GVSU’s Padnos College of Engineering and Computing, the University of Michigan and its Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute, and the Michigan Natural Features Inventory of Michigan State University Extension.
“As we are entering the era of real applied use of alternative energy, this project will allow GVSU and its partners to make a notable contribution,” said Charlie Standridge, assistant dean of GVSU’s Padnos College.
Real-time data will be transmitted from the research buoy to a shore station where it will be evaluated and analyzed by GVSU researchers. From there, the data will be forwarded to researchers at the University of Michigan and MNFI for more comprehensive analysis and integrated assessment with a variety of research topics. The University of Michigan researchers will cover a variety of topics, including wind, wave and ice climatology, while MNFI will focus on bird and bat studies.
James Edmonson, set to start as project manager for the study on April 1, called the entire scope of the project “cutting edge.” Edmonson is former president of Muskegon Area First.
“All kinds of information will be able to be gathered for the first time, so that’s exciting,” Edmonson said.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s approval this week was twofold. Federal officials approved the project’s environmental review required before a structure can be put in the Great Lakes and they reviewed the project’s budget for the federal grant funds.
The project secured a $1.4 million grant from the Department of Energy in 2009.
In addition to federal money, funding for the project is being provided by the Michigan Public Service Commission, Wisconsin Energy and the Sierra Club. The Michigan Public Service Commission issued a $1.3 million energy-efficiency grant for the project.
Emily Green, Sierra Club Great Lakes Program director, said the environmental group is committed to having the country move quickly to develop offshore wind energy while minimizing any potential damage to wildlife and the environment.
“This is our chance to get clean energy right,” Green said. “We need offshore wind in order to help move our nation off of the dirty fuels like oil and coal that have wreaked havoc on our health, our economy, our air and our water.”
In addition to the initial Muskegon location, the buoy’s second testing area will be in the middle of Lake Michigan, just south of a line from Grand Haven to Milwaukee. Wisconsin Energy is interested in wind data from that location, Boezaart said.
The third location would be determined by GVSU and University of Michigan researchers after the results of the first two years are analyzed.
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