GVSU assesses offshore wind farms in Great Lakes

June 10, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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Grand Valley State University has issued a report on its study of the pros and cons related to offshore wind farms, including public acceptance, visibility, noise and tourism.

Currently, there are no offshore wind farms in North America — unlike northern Europe — but the Cape Wind project proposed off Massachusetts has received a permit allowing construction to begin, and another project proposed for Lake Erie off Cleveland is progressing quite rapidly in its quest for permits, according to Erik Nordman, assistant professor of biology at GVSU and principal investigator of its West Michigan Wind Assessment Project.

A Minnesota wind farm developer proposed an offshore wind farm in Lake Michigan off Oceana and Mason counties a couple of years ago, but has apparently dropped that proposal in the face of stiff local opposition. The developer, Scandia Wind, is now proposing a wind farm off Muskegon and Ottawa counties and maintains a small office in the GVSU Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center on the shore of Muskegon Lake.

Nordman said the study reveals differing public perceptions and expectations regarding use of the Great Lakes shoreline, ranging from power plants to recreation to relaxation.

“This information can help open up a discussion to understand the different values of the Great Lakes and whether offshore wind energy is appropriate,” he added.

According to Nordman, the study showed:

**Water depths in Lake Michigan increase rapidly with distance from shore so offshore wind turbines are likely to be located within view of the shore.

**A wind farm located six miles offshore in Lake Michigan would be visible about 64 percent of the time based on average weather conditions.

**Sound from an offshore wind turbine can reflect off the water and travel farther than similar sounds on land, although it is unlikely that any sound would reach the shore six miles away.

**Permitting an offshore wind farm is complex; the Cape Wind project took nine years to secure a permit. However, the permitting process regarding Michigan’s Great Lakes is different from that for federal waters along the continental shelf.

Some advantages of offshore wind farms are:

**More consistent wind;

**Proximity to large cities and energy centers;

**Larger and more efficient turbines;

**Located where turbine blade noise is less likely to disturb people.

Some drawbacks to offshore wind farm projects:

**Higher construction and maintenance costs;

**Public acceptance;

**Could negatively affect people’s connection to a landscape.

The information on turbine visibility six miles out came from the S.S. Badger in Ludington, a car ferry that routinely logs visibility and other weather variables affecting navigation on every crossing of Lake Michigan, and reports the data to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, according to Nordman.

As for sound of offshore wind turbines, Nordman said the study looked at several sources, one being the Cape Wind project data. He said the sound of a wind farm six miles offshore is “basically not perceptible above the background noise.” Other data came from scientists in Sweden who measured turbine sounds during the “worst case scenario,” which he said would be a high level jet stream that would cause sound to bounce farther on the surface of the water.

“But even in those worst-case situations, the sound would be inaudible at a distance of six miles,” said Nordman.

Local opposition to offshore wind farms in some areas apparently adds to the difficulty of obtaining permits from government regulators. The Cape Wind project off Cape Cod was notably opposed by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, who felt an offshore wind farm would spoil his view from his seaside vacation home there. In Michigan so far, the opposition to offshore wind farms has been led by the Lake Michigan P.O.W.E.R. Coalition, based in Pentwater. P.O.W.E.R stands for Protect Our Water, Economy and Resources, according to the organization’s website.

The GVSU West Michigan Wind Assessment is a Michigan Sea Grant-funded project that is analyzing the benefits and challenges of wind energy development in coastal West Michigan.

In a separate study, the GVSU MAREC will conduct a three-year offshore wind assessment study in Lake Michigan beginning with the launching of a research buoy in September. After preliminary tests about four miles out this fall, the $1.6 million laser-equipped buoy will be returned to shore. In 2012, it will be anchored in the middle of Lake Michigan between Muskegon and Milwaukee, on a high point of the bottom called the Mid-Lake Plateau, which has a minimum depth of about 150 feet.

Arn Boezaart, director of MAREC, said in March that the plan calls for anchoring the buoy in 2013 closer to the shore, perhaps at a distance of six miles off West Michigan.

The boat-like buoy, called WindSentinel by its maker, has a laser wind sensor that 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 project, which began in earnest last fall, has a total price tag of $3.3 million. Funding has come 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., is a financial partner in the lake winds research project.

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