DOE encourages Great Lakes offshore wind generation development

April 15, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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Just as GVSU was about to begin its second season of wind power research on Lake Michigan, the Obama Administration and the Department of Energy announced a commitment from some Great Lakes states’ governors — including Rick Snyder — to try to “streamline” the regulatory process that would allow placement of commercial wind turbines on the lakes.

The press conference in Washington March 30 “signals that the federal government really is very serious about moving ahead with this,” said Arn Boezaart, director of GVSU’s Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon.

MAREC is in the second year of a $3.3 million research project to study the winds over Lake Michigan. At some point from mid- to late-April, Boezaart said MAREC’s $1.6 million high-tech research buoy — really more like a 10-ton fully enclosed boat — will be anchored on the Mid-Lake Plateau in the middle of Lake Michigan to radio wind and other meteorological data to scientists until the onset of winter. Next year, he said, it will be anchored closer to the Michigan side of the lake, but still probably at least 10 miles out.

The joint announcement from the Executive Office of the President and DOE noted that, “as part of President Obama’s all-of-the-above approach to energy, the Obama Administration today joined with the governors of Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York and Pennsylvania to announce the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding that will streamline the efficient and responsible development of offshore wind resources in the Great Lakes.”

“This agreement among federal agencies and Great Lakes states is a smart, practical way to encourage the development of homegrown energy that will create jobs, power homes and help increase our nation’s energy security,” said Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

The memorandum of understanding will enhance collaboration between federal and state agencies to speed review of proposed offshore wind projects, according to the announcement.

Offshore wind energy on the Great Lakes has the potential to produce more than 700 gigawatts of energy from offshore wind — about one fifth of the total offshore wind potential in the U.S., according to DOE. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that each gigawatt of installed offshore wind generation would be enough electricity for 300,000 homes.

According to the Great Lakes Wind Collaborative, based in Ann Arbor, the agreement was modeled after a similar MOU signed between 10 East Coast states and the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2010. The Great Lakes MOU, however, carries additional significance because states own the bottomlands of the Great Lakes and ultimately have the primary authority about what can and cannot occur in their waters.

Numerous federal laws and interests are also at play in the Great Lakes. For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has federal authority to approve or deny placement of structures in navigable waters. Nine other federal agencies that signed the MOU also have regulatory roles or federal interest in whether and how offshore wind would be allowed in the Great Lakes.

MAREC’s Lake Michigan Offshore Wind Assessment project has received funding from DOE, Michigan Public Service Commission, We Energies of Wisconsin, the University of Michigan and the Sierra Club. The MPSC grant was a $1.36 million energy-efficiency grant.

We Energies, the trade name of Wisconsin Electric Power Co., a subsidiary of Wisconsin Energy Corp., has been described by Boezaart in the past as “a financial partner” in the lake winds research project.

The WindSentinel research buoy, built by AXYS Technologies Inc. of British Columbia, contains a Vindicator laser wind sensor, which can simultaneously measure wind speeds at various heights above the buoy, up to 150 meters, which is about as high as the hub on the largest commercial wind turbines. The WindSentinel will send continuous wireless data to the GVSU Padnos College of Engineering and Computing, where it will be evaluated and analyzed by researchers. Then the data will be forwarded to other researchers at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, according to Boezaart.

MAREC acquired the WindSentinel last fall and anchored it four miles from Muskegon in Lake Michigan from Nov. 4 until the end of December for preliminary tests of its functions. Through most of 2012, it will be anchored on top of the Mid-Lake Plateau, which is about 30 miles from the Michigan shore due west of Montague. The plateau is a large, submerged hill that rises to within 130 feet of the surface from surrounding depths of up to 700 feet.

Boezaart said it has not yet been determined where the research buoy will be anchored in 2013, but most likely it will be in deep water. While it will be closer to the Michigan shore, “it won’t be near shore,” he said.

Boezaart said floating wind turbine technology is “being developed as we speak,” noting that he has seen drawings of “some very promising floating platform technology.”

He called that a very significant development because it “would allow deployment of wind turbines in deep water locations, totally out of sight of land.” He said that capability would change the whole approach to wind energy development on the Great Lakes.

In late 2009, Scandia Wind Offshore, a developer based in Minnesota, proposed a commercial wind farm with scores of turbines off Mason and Oceana counties, from four to six miles out. However, a shoreline property owners organization based in Pentwater mobilized to fight that with successful lobbying and advertising, and in June 2010, Mason County commissioners voted 9 to 1 against a resolution that would have accepted, in principle, the visual impact of a commercial wind farm four miles from the Mason County shoreline.

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