- Category: Business
29 Oct 2010
- Published on Friday, 29 October 2010 04:59
- Hits (591)
By Oliver M. Bayani
Until recently, the United States was mostly focused on land-based wind power, the obvious choice since it is where the technology was born and where it was developed to become cheaper and more efficient. But winds offshore can generate more energy than all of the country’s coasts combined.
The Great Lakes’ winds are particularly fascinating to several states, though the possibility of gigantic wind turbines rising on the lakes is raising local ire.
An enormous collection of freshwater seas, the Great Lakes consists of five lakes that border eight states and the Canadian province of Ontario. It consists of Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario, forming the largest group of freshwater lakes on earth by total surface and volume.
The United States Department of Energy rates wind quality at the Great Lakes as "outstanding" in certain places. Overall, the department said the Great Lakes’ wind quality is just equal to – or could be better than – that on the Great Plains, which is the heartland of onshore wind capacity in the United States.
Offshore wind farms are more expensive to build than those on land, but they offer crucial advantages. They are generally tougher to install but those in freshwater, such as the Great Lakes, would require very little maintenance because lakes will not cause corrosion like saltwater. Turbines are also easier to install on a lake than on the ocean.
As for the current, winds tend to be faster and steadier over water. Of course, it is not always at 30 miles per hour or 40 miles per hour, but it is fast and consistent enough to supply the Upper Midwest with large amounts of clean energy.
In addition, sunlight for solar panels is fairly weak for powering states in the Midwest unlike in California in the East Coast, especially during the winter. With 17 aging nuclear power plants, the Midwest must tap strong winds in the region to help fill the capacity gap.
Offshore wind farms on the Great lakes can be built much closer to coastal cities than in other windy regions. This is important because coasts and high population go hand-in-hand in the United States. High population means high energy consumption. Of the 48 states, 28 that have coastal boundaries consume 78 percent of the nation’s electricity, according to the United States Energy Information Administration.
The prospect seekers
All these factors explain why companies are itching to build wind-power generating complexes on the Great Lakes. The biggest proposed development so far is a $4 billion wind farm off Western Michigan by Minnesota-based Scandia Wind Offshore. The 1,000-megawatt Aegier project would supply enough power for 300,000 homes and be accessible to major cities like Chicago and Detroit.
Michigan is poised to become the first state in the Great Lakes region to develop offshore wind power since it borders four of the five lakes, equal to 40 percent of its surface.
A Michigan State University study also shows that the state’s portion of the Great Lakes alone could produce nearly 322,000 megawatts of power, a huge amount equal to roughly one-third of all electricity generated today in the United States.
Experts believe Michigan is also well positioned to quickly exploit the Great Lakes’ offshore wind potential because it has the best chance of connecting with big manufacturers, not to mention that it owns the supply chain that could support future projects throughout the region.
Over at Ontario, Trillium Power Wind Corporation plans to develop a 710 MW-wind farm in the eastern end of Lake Ontario. Wind energy giant Vestas will be the exclusive provider of up to 740 turbines for Trillium’s future wind projects. Considered a pioneer in wind turbine manufacturing, Denmark-based Vestas holds 20 percent of the global wind turbine market.
If Lake Michigan’s key selling point is its offshore wind capacity, Lake Ontario boasts of its growing wind manufacturing industry base. Aside from Vestas, a South Korean consortium led by industrial giant Samsung C&T announced in January a $7 billion plan to manufacture wind and solar devices from Ontario over six years.
Feed-in tariff, and the hitches
In addition, Ontario is the only jurisdiction in North America to have a feed-in tariff for offshore wind. The province offers 19 cents per kilowatt-hour of offshore wind power. This makes it easier for Trillium, which has four projects totaling 3,700 megawatts in the pipeline, to pioneer offshore development in the Great Lakes ahead of companies that placed their bets in Lake Michigan.
Industrial giant G.E. has also set its eyes on the Great Lakes region. The conglomerate already has a deal with Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation to provide new direct-drive wind turbines for a 20-MW offshore wind project in the Ohio waters of Lake Erie. New York state has also launched an initial review of five proposals to construct 500-MW farms on state waters of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.
The potential for offshore wind power in the windswept Great Lakes is undeniable. However, that huge promise is right now being met with doubts – and criticism. Despite environmental groups saying that renewable energy developments translate to nothing but positive green effects in more ways than one, big plans for the Great Lakes have run into a wall of opposition.
In February, the Pentwater Village unanimously decided to oppose Scandia Wind Offshore’s proposed facility in Lake Michigan. Pentwater, the community nearest the proposed wind farm, brought up issues of potential harm to recreational boating, commercial shipping, migratory birds and fish populations.
That is not all. Oceana and Mason Counties’ board of commissioners and several townships aside from Pentwater have all rejected Scandia’s ideas, according to the Lake Michigan Power Coalition. Mason County’s board voted 9-1 against a Scandia move asking the community to accept the view of the turbines four miles off the coast.
Scandia has cut its wind farm capacity proposal for Lake Michigan by half, from 1,000 MW to 500 MW. It has asked the counties’ boards to weigh the revised plan by September 1. Still, the two counties did not yield. Now that the two original counties have decried the plans, Scandia’s chief executive Steve Warner said he will focus instead on developing a possible 500-MW wind farm in the lake off the shores of Muskegon and Ottawa counties.
A report by the Michigan Great Lakes Wind Council said turbines should be at least six miles from the shore, five miles from habitats of threatened or endangered species, one mile from recreational fish spawning sites and 13 miles from national park shoreline. But legislation has yet to be introduced to make its findings legally binding, causing confusion among supporters and critics alike.
Opposition is also building at the Canadian side of the Lakes. Responding to strong public concern about the impact offshore wind turbines could have on the Great Lakes, Ontario’s government has announced plans to establish a five-kilometer buffer along shorelines and required developers to study their impact on wildlife, including fish populations.
But Robert Hornung, Canadian Wind Energy Association president, said a five-kilometer exclusion zone is inconsistent with past policy signals the industry received from the province, which implemented the Canada’s first feed-in tariff for the output of offshore turbines.
"Encouraged by the Ontario government to explore offshore wind energy opportunities, companies have been making significant investments to develop wind energy projects in areas that would now be excluded from development under the proposed regulation," said Mr. Hornung.
The association is in the process of reviewing the proposal in detail to determine what changes it would like to see made. Mr. Hornung added that any solution that will be taken needs to be developed with a view of maintaining investor confidence in the market.
These obstacles have held up, if not totally called off, many projects in other offshore wind farms in the country. The challenges facing the lakes share a striking resemblance with the 468-MW Cape Wind project in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The United States’ potentially first offshore wind farm battled public opposition and regulatory hurdles for more than eight years.
Cape Wind, estimated to cost at least $2 billion, has been cleared by federal environmental reviews. Ken Salazar, interior secretary, approved the offshore wind project this year. Slated to be online by late 2012, the Cape Cod would be the largest wind generating installation in the United States, providing about three-quarters of Cape Cod's power.
But even with state permitting decision this month, it faces a number of legal challenges, including federal lawsuits claiming that the government did not complete reviews about the threat posed by wind turbines to wildlife.
It is not yet clear who will win the race to build the first offshore wind farm in the United States – an arena the country has lost to world leader Britain, several other European countries and even China. But as soon as the first gets built, it could hopefully snowball into thousands of megawatts of clean power.