The notion is intoxicating: Capture the wind that has buffeted boaters on the Great Lakes for centuries and convert it into clean, renewable energy. But one important piece of data has been missing: We don’t know exactly how windy it is out there.
Soon, we will.
A floating research platform launched to collect data on wind speeds high above the water in the middle of Lake Michigan has begun feeding the information to researchers involved in a $3 million project.
“We’re capturing some of the very first data,” said Arnold “Arn” Boezaart, director of the Michigan Alternative & Renewable Energy Center at Grand Valley State University in Muskegon, which is leading the research. “The wind data that we’re bringing on shore – when I brought the first data cards on shore, I felt like I was bringing gold bullion.”
The WindSentinel research platform, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the State of Michigan, We Energies and the Sierra Club, uses laser-pulse radar technology to gather information about wind speeds at heights in excess of 500 feet above water.
A partnership of Axys Technologies in Vancouver, British Columbia, and a Virginia company called Catch the Wind incorporated the laser and radar technology into a wind-measuring platform that is powered with renewable energy sources – primarily wind and solar, but also biodiesel. The platform was the first one deployed in North America and the only one on the Great Lakes. Another was deployed recently in the Atlantic Ocean off New Jersey.
Previous Great Lakes studies have indicated there are strong winds midlake, but wind monitors in the lake today measure wind speeds at only 10 to 12 feet off the water, well below the height that would be used to generate electricity from wind. There has been no hard data documenting wind speeds at the height where a turbine’s blades would turn.
Preliminary results from the new project look promising: Data from June showed an average wind speed of 22 mph 410 feet above the water.
“Based on our early assessments of the average data that we’re gathering, there clearly is a very robust wind resource out over Lake Michigan,” Boezaart said. Wind speeds over 15 to 20 mph are considered commercially viable for wind generation, he said.
Wind power on the water is an attractive alternative to land-based wind power because it avoids some of the site challenges that have dogged wind turbine development in Wisconsin, such as concerns about annoying, flickering shadows a rotating turbine can cast on nearby homes and buildings.
Development of offshore wind power projects has been active in Europe, particularly in Denmark, Norway and Germany. In the United States, several proposals are under development along the Eastern Seaboard.
The Cape Wind project in Massachusetts cleared its final regulatory hurdle this month, and developers are seeking financing for the 130-turbine project in Nantucket Sound. Construction of the project is expected to start as soon as next year.
In Wisconsin, a 2008 report by the state Public Service Commission found that more research was needed on lake wind speeds.
That study also found a dearth of information about migratory bird patterns over the middle of the lake. It’s well known and documented that a variety of bird species use the shorelines of the Great Lakes for their migration routes, but less is known about bird movements in the middle of the lake.
When they went out to the middle of the lake to check on the performance of the research platform, Boezaart and his team saw plenty of gulls and lake flies, but little else.
An acoustic measuring device funded with $30,000 from the Sierra Club will help gauge bird and bat movements in the area where wind speeds are being studied.
Research by avian ecologists indicates birds fly at high altitudes over the middle of the lake, then descend within a few miles of shore, but this research will help provide hard data, said Emily Green of the Sierra Club in Madison.
“We got involved to help make sure that we have the information needed to advance offshore wind and make smart decisions about where to put it, and help allay concerns as well,” said Jennifer Feyerherm of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.
We Energies’ role
We Energies contributed $250,000 toward the $3 million project. The utility agreed to help pay for the project as long as it got to participate in planning the research, and as long as researchers agreed to test speeds in the middle of the lake.
We Energies chose the spot after the PSC report concluded a potential development site is Mid-Lake Plateau, a shallower stretch of the lake. We Energies also participated on the panel that helped produce the PSC report.
Several years ago, We Energies committed to helping fund a broader study, utility spokesman Brian Manthey said, and the Grand Valley State University study fit the need.
“There’s some value in being able to assess what wind resource is available in the lake before anything would be considered well down the road,” said Manthey.
The Sierra Club hosted a conference on offshore wind power in Madison this year and has been meeting with groups around the state about the issue. The biggest concern: What will it look like from the shoreline?
The consensus in Michigan was that any wind farm would have to be at least 6 miles from shore. Simulations prepared by Grand Valley State show a wind farm 6 miles out in the lake would still be visible from shore, so a more likely scenario may be at least 10 miles out, Boezaart said.
One of the advantages of a Mid-Lake Plateau site is that it wouldn’t be visible from either shore. Concerns about visibility from shore led to litigation against the Cape Cod project.
Shifts in the wind
The transition toward more renewable energy has slowed, given the economy, the Midwest’s currently ample energy supply and the shifts in political power in state capitals around the Great Lakes. As a result, one Wisconsin company that formed to capitalize on offshore wind development, Energy Composites Corp. in Wisconsin Rapids, shifted its focus back to other markets it was serving, such as the dairy industry and biofuels, from wind power.
The wind industry’s priority this year is to get an extension of federal tax credits, which expire this year. It would like Congress to extend the tax credits and then phase them out over the next four years.
The issue of tax credits has divided the presidential candidates.
Republican Mitt Romney opposes them and instead favors a policy focusing on such things as expansion of domestic oil and natural gas drilling.
President Barack Obama supports extending the credits and has touted the economic development potential of wind energy. His administration is working with some Midwest states to facilitate Great Lakes wind power development – a collaboration Wisconsin has not joined.
“The job creation potential for offshore wind for Wisconsin is considerable,” said Bob Owen, a wind power researcher in Middleton. “We really are in a greater competitive position than the other Great Lakes states to tap into several aspects. We have a lot of businesses that could benefit from developing the technology.”
Doug Lindsey, who heads the Energy Education Center at Lakeshore Technical College, is working on the issue with the New North economic development group and the Wisconsin Wind Works coalition of manufacturers.
The college has a certification program for wind energy technicians. The manufacturing heritage of Manitowoc and northeast Wisconsin with shipbuilding, crane manufacturers and wind tower manufacturer Broadwind Energy could help position the region for jobs as the offshore wind development takes shape, he said.
“From the workforce development standpoint, we’re all for anything that makes those jobs more local,” Lindsey said. “One of the things that intrigued me was that a turbine at 6 or more miles out solves the migratory bird issues, and clearly the NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) piece, for the most part, goes away.”
The research platform will remain in the lake midway between Milwaukee and Muskegon for the rest of the year. However, a new obstacle has arisen: a sudden loss of state funding from Michigan after a manufacturers group won a lawsuit challenging utility rate increases tied to energy-efficiency grants like the one that gave this project $1.3 million. As a result, Boezaart and his crew have no resources to analyze the second-by-second wind readings they recover from the platform every few weeks.
Also up in the air: where to position the platform next year to continue gauging offshore wind speeds.
That will depend on who steps forward to help pay for the research. Possibilities include wind industry companies or proponents of an offshore wind farm on the drawing board for Evanston, Ill.
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