GVSU to launch hightech wind research buoy

April 3, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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Grand Valley State University’s Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon will take delivery this summer of a sophisticated new tool for collecting data that should answer major questions about the viability of offshore commercial wind turbines in Lake Michigan.

The “tool” is technically a buoy but actually shaped like a boat 6 meters long by 3 meters wide and weighing 10 tons. It will send continuous wireless data to the GVSU Padnos College of Engineering and Computing to 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 Arn Boezaart, director of MAREC.

The $1.6 million buoy — called WindSentinel by its maker, AXYS Technologies Inc. of Sidney, British Columbia — contains a Vindicator laser wind sensor built by Catch the Wind Inc. of Manassas, Va. The Vindicator 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.

Plans call for anchoring the WindSentinel about four miles out in Lake Michigan in September for testing and fine-tuning until the onset of rough winter weather in late November or December. Then the buoy will be brought back in, and in the spring of 2012, Boezaart said plans call for anchoring it in the middle of Lake Michigan between Muskegon and Milwaukee on top of a high point on the lake’s bottom called the Mid-Lake Plateau, at a depth of about 150 feet.

In 2013, the buoy will be moved closer to the shoreline of West Michigan, perhaps at a distance of six miles out, according to Boezaart.

The project, which began in earnest about six months ago, has a price tag of $3.3 million and will take three years from start to finish. Funding has been received from the U.S. Department of Energy, 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., was described by Boezaart as “a financial partner” in the lake winds research project.

The last major hurdle MAREC had to overcome was to prove the buoy would not harm the environment under the terms of the federal National Environmental Policy Act. NEPA approval was finally received in late March, at which point MAREC was allowed to officially submit its purchase order to AXYS Technologies.

The buoy isn’t expected until August, said Boezaart, but he said a lot of work has to be done in the meantime to secure additional permits from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard.

“It’s been 18 months in the making,” noted Boezaart, and it was “a big job to get to the point where we are.” MAREC also announced that James B. Edmonson will serve as project manager for the wind assessment study.

MAREC first revealed a proposal to study offshore Lake Michigan wind energy potential in 2009. Boezaart noted that the original proposal called for erecting a meteorological tower on the bottom of Lake Michigan but “that would have had huge NEPA implications” related to disturbance of the lake bottom and “would have been very complicated,” he said.

“In this instance, we’re basically putting a buoy out there in a temporary mooring — not creating any significant environmental impact to speak of.”

The WindSentinel buoy, which was field tested on Vancouver Sound in Canada, had heavy netting surrounding its superstructure to prevent seals from getting onboard and damaging sensitive electronic equipment. Boezaart mentioned that the netting may also be used for the Lake Michigan buoy “to keep the drunken boaters off. This is very expensive equipment.”

“This is the first time this laser wind-sensing technology is being used on a floating platform in the Great Lakes,” said Boezaart. In fact, MAREC will receive only the second WindSentinel sold for use in North America; the first one will be delivered this spring to Fisherman’s Energy LLC in New Jersey, a consortium of East Coast fishing companies developing an offshore wind farm.

In addition to the laser sensor, the WindSentinel has instruments that will monitor other weather factors. The buoy is equipped with solar panels and a small wind turbine to power the equipment on board, but it also has a diesel generator as a backup power supply.

“This is a multi-university effort involving GVSU and MAREC,” said Boezaart. He added that the Padnos College of Engineering will be the principal manager of data from the buoy, but engineers at the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute at the University of Michigan also will do an in-depth analysis of it. The Michigan Natural Features Inventory of Michigan State University Extension will study sonar data transmitted by the buoy related to the presence birds and bats.

“The big question is, do birds (and bats) migrate over the Great Lakes? Nobody knows,” said Boezaart. Potential bird and bat kills from spinning turbine blades are a major issue raised by opponents of commercial wind turbines.

Boezaart said the advantages of the WindSentinel buoy over a fixed met tower is the ability to move it to any location to capture real-time data on wind conditions up to 400 feet above the water. He said the data will become “publicly available because it’s being collected with state and federal funds.”

GVSU and the other universities are obviously not planning to develop wind farms, said Boezaart, but are looking for answers about wind conditions on the Great Lakes. “All the information we have right now is based on modeling,” he said, using satellite data, plus projections and extrapolations.

Edmonson, a native of eastern Michigan, was director of planning and community development for Muskegon during the 1990s. He also served as the president and CEO of Muskegon Area First until about 2007. He and his wife, Allison, a CPA, now operate a business called Edmonson Associates, which does project management and business attraction/expansion consulting for small businesses and nonprofit organizations.

Both Edmonson and Boezaart are members of a research leadership team on the Lake Michigan buoy project. Other members of the team represent the universities involved in the research.

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