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Despite funding setback, Lake Erie wind project pushes ahead

Wind turbines planned for Lake Erie will share engineering technology with wind farms in the North Sea. (Photo by Martin Pettitt via Creative Commons)

Wind turbines planned for Lake Erie will share engineering technology with wind farms in the North Sea. (Photo by Martin Pettitt via Creative Commons)

Developers of an Ohio offshore wind energy project say it will proceed despite losing out last month on one of three $47-million 4-year grants from the Department of Energy (DOE).

The money would have let Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDCo) build its 18-MW Icebreaker pilot project and have it in operation by 2018.

Nonetheless, DOE has agreed to give LEEDCo at least $3 million to complete engineering and other studies. The funds are in addition to approximately $4 million awarded by DOE in 2012.

“The most important thing is that we’re still moving forward,” says LEEDCo president Lorry Wagner.

LEEDCo was launched five years ago by Nor Tech Energy Enterprise, the Cleveland Foundation, the City of Cleveland, and Cuyahoga and Lorain Counties. The nonprofit regional and economic development organization can still pursue other private or public funding options for its 6-turbine pilot project.

The planned Icebreaker site sits seven miles off the shore of Lake Erie near Cleveland. If successful, its innovative design could open up more of Lake Erie and the Great Lakes for offshore wind energy.

“The fundamentals of the project are as strong, if not stronger” than ever, Wagner says. “People want locally-grown green energy. They want to clean up the environment. They want jobs.”

Engineering for muck and ice

Realizing Ohio’s potential for offshore wind energy requires a turbine design that can withstand conditions in Lake Erie’s shallow but rough waters.

Layers of soft clay, sand, compacted clay and glacial till sit 60 feet under the project’s planned site. To get through all that and down to shale bedrock, LEEDCo will adapt the monopile design used for wind farms in the North Sea.

This diagram shows how wind turbines in Lake Erie would be anchored to the lake floor. (Image courtesy LEEDCO)

This diagram shows how wind turbines in Lake Erie would be anchored to the lake floor. Courtesy LEEDCo. (click to enlarge)

A monopile is basically a giant hollow steel tube — imagine twisting a huge drinking draw into wet sand to anchor it. Similarly, a monopile foundation can support a heavy wind turbine.

The Icebreaker project will get extra stability by adding a device called a friction wheel, a structure made of large metal rings surrounding the tube on the lake floor.

Ice is another huge challenge. Turbines must withstand the force of several tons ramming into them as ice moves around on Lake Erie’s surface.

Not all ice forms in smooth thin sheets, either. Thickness and form both vary.

For example, ridge ice forms “when the ice breaks and the sheets kind of climb over each other,” says Wagner. “Ridge ice is really what drives the design.”

Specially-designed ice cones at the surface of the water will break up the ice as it strikes the turbines. As that happens, sensors will also collect information.

“It’s amazing how little detailed data there is about ice,” Wagner notes, especially when it comes to information about its thickness and strength.

That data will expand scientific knowledge about physical science and the Great Lakes. Data about real world ice, loads and other stresses should also reduce engineering requirements and construction costs for future offshore wind projects on Lake Erie.

Building an industry

Icebreaker is just the first step towards getting those future projects up and running. LEEDCo hopes its pilot project will attract private investment and develop Ohio’s offshore wind industry.

“You look at our region, and we’re still starving for jobs,” Wagner says, while noting that no one industry can solve the problem.

“We see ourselves as the 10-percent solution,” Wagner says. “[Offshore wind] could provide 10 percent of the energy and maybe 10 percent of the new jobs.”

Developing Ohio’s wind industry is more daunting in the wake of recent changes to Ohio’s renewable energy standards and other setbacks. Also, notes Wagner, “We’re going against established industries who continue to get significant subsidies.”

Until recently, for example, utilities have been able to pass through to ratepayers all reasonable and prudent costs for building and operating generation plants, while still earning a return on investment for shareholders. And despite deregulation, a current administrative case seeks to charge customers extra costs for older coal plants.

“We’re competing anyway,” says Wagner. But he says he’d prefer it to be done on an even playing field.

The Icebreaker project has support from various environmental groups, including the Sierra Club’s Ohio Chapter, the Ohio Environmental Council, Environment Ohio, and others.

“The Great Lakes are littered with dirty coal plants. The Great Lakes are also home to several nuclear plants that have safety violations,” notes Jen Miller, Sierra Club Ohio Chapter Director. “If we do not move to wind power and other renewable sources of energy, we have to rely more heavily on these dirty sources that are already threatening the lakes.”

For the birds

Offshore wind projects tend to draw additional scrutiny for potential wildlife impact, and Icebreaker is no exception.

This spring the American Bird Conservancy and Black Swamp Bird Observatory voiced concerns to the Ohio Power Siting Board. The groups’ earlier efforts halted a wind turbine at Camp Perry, Ohio, because of its location near migratory bird pathways. Now they want closer scrutiny of Icebreaker.

“We didn’t exactly oppose it,” says Michael Hutchins, National Coordinator of the American Bird Conservancy’s Bird Smart Wind Energy Campaign. “What we did was call for all of the voluntary legal guidelines regarding the protection of birds to be done.”

“The southern shore of Lake Erie is incredibly important for bird migration,” Hutchins stresses.

Among other things, Hutchins wants additional studies beyond the avian risk assessment prepared for LEEDCo last fall by Curry & Kerlinger, an environmental consulting firm based in New Jersey.

Risks to birds are “negligible,” the study says.

Most notably, the Icebreaker turbines will be seven miles from shore. Because very few birds fly directly across Lake Erie there, the study estimates collision risks for Kirtland’s Warbler at about 1 death every 500 years. Risks to the Piping Plover would be five times lower, it says.

LEEDCo consulted extensively with fish and wildlife experts at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, says Wagner. “We have done everything they asked us to do.”

Other types of electricity generation affect birds too, notes Miller. “If the fish are full of mercury because of coal power plants, the birds are going to eat those fish,” Miller says.

“Power lines, pesticides, house cats, cars, and even buildings kill significantly more birds each year than wind turbines,” she adds.

Nor are birds the only species that matter. “We need to look at the entire ecosystem and all the various species that are affected,” Miller says.

“Ultimately, we need to move to wind energy,” she concludes. “Our planet will be healthier, our lakes will be healthier, and our birds will be healthier, if we can cut our reliance on coal and nuclear and gas that are polluting our planet.”

The Sierra Club, Environment Ohio, and Ohio Environmental Council are members of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News.

Comments (9)

The fundamental issue here is not whether we all want jobs, or clean energy, or to clean up the environment. It is whether this is a good way to do it. Only a valid, data-laden impact study can justify the risk projections on migratory birds and endangered species. This seems to be lacking, so to move forward at this point would seem not only a counterproductive “green” strategy, but irresponsible and short-sighted as well. LEEDCo should be more environmentally friendly beforehand, and perhaps having to “promote” or “defend” the project wouldn’t be so necessary.

By Don Bauman on Jun 23, 2014

Environmentally speaking, LEEDco at least has their collective eyes and ears open. The coal plants never have and never will, nuclear plants certainly don’t, and fracking for natural gas? The absolute worst envirinmental impact and HUMAN impact yet. There has to be a push towards more green energies and the icebreaker project could help lead the way. I plan to finish my engineering degree and get on board with green power right away.

By Sean S. on Jun 23, 2014

Great comment, Don Bauman. I agree.

By Mary on Jun 23, 2014

What a shame. Brookings made it clear that wind and solar are the most expensive yet least effective means of reducing emissions. Off shore wind is much worse.

http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2014/05/low-carbon-electricity-technologies-frank

What an environmental travesty.

By Kevon Martis on Jun 24, 2014

FOR THE BIRDS- Couldn’t be better stated. The shallowest of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie is a heavily populated flyway, migratory path, including various endangered species and many water fowl species. The seriously flawed studies by LEEDCo and their contractors were derived from onshore avian populations in the US and offshore in Europe. Their lead avian investigator, Kerlinger, is well known for his work FOR wind energy developers. How very sad. This is NOT green and clean, it is filthy, environmentally destructive, and unaffordable. After all, who will supply electricity during the 75-90% of the time when the wind doesn’t blow at the right speed to produce it? Coal, at least in Ohio, filthy coal that will ramp up and down as the wind does and doesn’t blow, producing more filthy air pollution than if it were producing at a steady rate. OR, THE POWER CAN JUST GO OFF. After all, NOT A SINGLE CONVENTIONAL POWER PLANT HAS BEEN SHUT DOWN ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD WHERE TURBINES HAVE BEEN BUILT. So, let LEEDCo slaughter countless birds, bats and waterfowl, cause energy poverty for the masses, do nothing for CO2 reduction, and collect millions in taxpayer grants, tax relief, etc. A sound energy plan, isn’t it?

By Suzanne Albright on Jun 24, 2014

Wind energy does NOT replace coal or nuclear. Such comparisons are like saying we ought to reduce airline fatalities by using more bicycles.

We should be open to alternative energy sources, but should ONLY approve those that have scientific proof that they are a NET societal benefit.

Otherwise we are simply trading one set of problems for another.

The fact is that there is no such proof for wind energy.

By EnergyExpert on Jun 24, 2014

Industrial Wind turbines are being sold under the pretense that they will significantly reduce CO2 emissions, and thereby help avoid Global Warming. Yet, 30 years into subsidizing the building of wind factories off the backs of taxpayers and ratepayers has proven otherwise.

Due to the unreliable, erratic, and volatile nature of wind, industrial wind turbines need constant “shadow capacity” from our reliable, dispatchable generators – that is, if you want to be sure the lights will come on when you flick the switch. Thus, as Big Wind CEO, Patrick Jenevein candidly admitted, “Consumers end up paying twice for the same product.”

All things considered, including demand levels and import/exports – the more wind installations we add, the more we must add fossil-fueled generation. The TRUTH: Wind generation locks us into dependence on fossil fuels.

Adding wind as a supplement to our conventional generating system requires so much supplementation that in many areas of the country, adding wind actually causes increased CO2 emissions in the production of electricity than would be the case with no wind at all. Iowa exemplifies this — As Iowa’s installed wind capacity has increased over recent years, so has their coal use and CO2 emissions.

With approximately 250,000 industrial wind turbines installed worldwide today (45,100 turbines totaling over 60GW of installed wind projects in the USA, according to AWEA), CO2 emissions have NOT been significantly reduced, nor has a single conventional generation plant – including coal, been decommissioned thanks to industrial wind.

Energy analyst and author, Robert Bryce, has written extensively about the short-comings of industrial wind, including his recent article – which sums it up very well, “Wind Turbines Are Climate-Change Scarecrows.”

By Mary Kay Barton on Jun 24, 2014

Actually, here’s a pretty good example of wind farms replacing conventional power plants.

By Ken Paulman on Jun 24, 2014

No coal plants have been shut down, but how many now operate less at less than full output, burning less coal?!
The loss of habitat from coal mining kills more birds than if we generated all the U.S.’s power with wind. The pollution from burning coal poisons fish , birds, people, everything.
The state of Ohio government just effectively eliminated the energy efficiency and alternative energy mandates that would have moderated Ohio’s co2 to a barely acceptable level. Solar you say? They threw solar out in the same junk piece of legislation. Ohio’s government has been completely bought by the fossil fuel burners and fossil fuel industries. The biggest burners of fossil fuel will of course be allowed to negotiate cheaper rates for their natural gas and coal fired electricity. The rest of you will subsidize their bills. Pray for more wind, because Ohio government has been highly paid to obliterate alternative energy and energy efficiency in the state. The Koch brothers, coal companies, and utilities who want to continue to burn coal and meltdown Davis Besse are also behind it. Remember when Bush gave F.E. $1 million dollars to halt the new source review program that would have required many reworked coal plants to install scrubbers? The ultimate bird killer will be climate change. Buildings and cats kill billions of birds every year. If all our power came from wind and solar we might kill a million,, certainly less dead birds than blowing the tops off of coal mountains and strip mining and creating toxic coal waste pits. I walked a 100 miles through so called reclaimed surface coal mines in Ohio , the streams ran brown with filth even 20 years later. As the drag lines get bigger and the coal more profitable, they go in and strip mine the “reclaimed” land again,killing everything that grows there, for the black stuff that is turning the earth into a place that your children won’t like very much. I love birds , I really do, but you have to look at the numbers, and especially you have to look at the slime ball politicians who just turned their backs on you and sold their souls to the coal and fossil fuel devils.

By Bill Katakis on Jun 26, 2014