Out to 'see' MAREC needs private partner for wind effort

April 4, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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MUSKEGON — A plan by the GVSU Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon to study commercial wind energy potential in Lake Michigan will require private investment to make it happen.

“We’re basically going to say to the world: We have $3 million for this. We believe it will take more. Who would like to join us, round out the dollars and be a partner in this effort?” said Arn Boezaart, executive director of MAREC.

Boezaart said that message will be contained in a request for proposals that MAREC will issue in late April.

“We have a substantial federal grant, a substantial state grant, and financing from the University of Michigan,” said Boezaart. “All told, we have a little over $3 million in hand, but we don’t believe that’s enough money to make this project happen.”

MAREC announced last year that it wants to place a platform in Lake Michigan, a few miles out from Muskegon, to measure wind and seasonal ice conditions and conduct other related research on an extended year-round basis.

“Before commercial-scale offshore wind-energy development can occur on the Great Lakes, there are many economic, environmental and technical questions that must be answered,” states the MAREC Web site.

Boezaart said the University of Michigan is now a partner with GVSU in the project, officially known as the Integrated Assessment of the Feasibility and Deployment of Offshore Wind Technology in the Great Lakes. U-M has an Energy Institute that is part of its College of Engineering, and it also has a school of naval architecture within the engineering school, according to Boezaart.

Architectural issues will be important. While there are offshore commercial wind turbines installed in the North Atlantic off the European coast, apparently there are no existing offshore wind farms in fresh water, where ice also will be a consideration.

According to MAREC, studies show that the wind velocity over Lake Michigan is in the range of 4 to 6 wind class, with 7 being the highest, and use of a 10th of that potential wind power over Lake Michigan could equal the electricity output of some 20 nuclear power plants.

Boezaart said the research platform would probably be from three to six miles out in the lake, but he could not say whether it would be a floating platform or built on the lake bottom. He said a successful respondent to the forthcoming RFP will help determine where it is and whether it is floating or not.

He said a meteorological tower for studying wind and weather conditions is now or soon will be built in the Atlantic Ocean off Delaware, estimated to cost $6 million. “The best thinking suggests the true cost (of a Lake Michigan research platform) will fall between $4 million and $6 million. But we won’t know until we release this request for proposals,” said Boezaart.

“We are saying to the private sector, help us develop an offshore structure in Lake Michigan that will support offshore wind data collection and research, and then we’ll leave it to the interested parties to suggest how they might like to tackle that,” said Boezaart.

There are several business entities that may be interested in the results of the wind studies. Boezaart told the Business Journal last October that Varnum law firm and Rockford Construction “are all parties who are interested in learning more” about potential wind farm projects in Lake Michigan. Although he said then that wind farms in Lake Michigan are “probably five to 10 years out,” Varnum and other law firms would be interested because there is expected to be a lengthy process to obtain necessary permits from state and federal government agencies.

Rockford Construction and a Spanish company have formed a partnership, Rockford Berge, to provide construction and logistical services for installation of large commercial-scale wind turbines in the Great Lakes region.

A new player on the scene is Scandia Wind Offshore, a Minnesota company that has formed a partnership with Havgul Clean Energy AS of Norway and Alpha Wind Energy Aps of Denmark. Havgul has been involved in wind energy development since 1995.

Scandia wants to try to develop a 1,000 megawatt wind farm in Lake Michigan, plus an approximately 150 megawatt wind farm onshore at the Muskegon County wastewater treatment facility just east of Muskegon. Its timetable, however, is “out a few years,” said CEO Steve Warner, so Scandia won’t be able to participate as a partner with MAREC under the timetable that will be presented in the request for proposals.

Scandia’s two-part offshore project, the Aegir Project, would place wind turbines four miles out from Mason and Oceana counties (Aegir I), and six miles out from Muskegon and Ottawa counties (Aegir II), according to Warner. He met in mid-March with Boezaart and other officials from Muskegon County, and shortly after that with wind farm development officials from the Michigan government, to talk about Scandia’s ideas. No proposals have been formally presented, however. While the tentative proposals are “very preliminary,” Warner said high-voltage transmission lines already in place on the shore in Mason County and in Muskegon play an important part in bringing Scandia here.

“The first criteria that we look at, of course, is the wind resources,” said Warner, “but the next — and very nearly as important — is the infrastructure available” for transmitting the wind turbine power to the electrical grid.

Both Boezaart and Warner said they are confident that engineers can design an offshore commercial wind farm strong enough to withstand the movement of ice and waves. Both, however, added that the cost would have to be low enough to make the project economically feasible.

Boezaart said the MAREC research platform in Lake Michigan is “a long way from being a done deal.” If another partner with the necessary money is found and the project obtains all the necessary permits in the coming months, construction probably could not begin until the spring of 2011 at the earliest, he said.

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