July 12, 2008
Push for Clean Energy May Capture the Lake Erie Winds
By John F. Bonfatti, The Buffalo News, N.Y.
Jul. 12--Wind turbines continue to rise from New York State landscapes, and more are in the pipeline. But don't be surprised to see them rising out of Lake Erie.
As powerful and consistent as the winds blow across land, they are even more powerful over water.
And as the push for clean, renewable energy sources intensifies, wind power advocates are focusing more and more attention on just how much more wind is available in the lake -- and how to overcome the challenges to harnessing it.
"The potential is actually very large," said Mark B. Mitskovski, the former Erie County director of energy development and management, who has worked on the possibility. "It's hundreds of megawatts, if not thousands."
In the United States, there are about 11 offshore wind-generation projects "in various stages of approval," said Walt Musial, principal engineer for ocean renewable energy with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Already, there are 21 offshore wind farms off the coasts of Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Ireland. More are in development.
Closer to home, Cleveland expects to install from two to 10 wind turbines in Lake Erie by 2011 as part of a demonstration project.
"What we'd really like to create is a center of excellence for wind energy and renewables," said that project's most ardent proponent, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason.
Near Belleville, Ont., about 135 miles northeast of Toronto, another proposal for as many as 140 turbines in Lake Ontario got a boost recently when the Ontario government lifted a moratorium on applications for offshore wind power.
The developer of the Ontario project believes it is only a matter of time before turbines will rise in the lakes.
"Five years ago, we didn't have offshore [wind power]," said John Kourtoff, president and chief executive officer of Trillium Power Wind Corp. "Five years from now, we'll have offshore, and people will be amazed at how much stronger the winds are."
The Ontario government already has mapped Lake Erie for potential wind power production.
An official with the province's Ministry of Natural Resources said some developers have formally expressed interest.
"There are applications that have been submitted to the ministry for consideration for offshore wind in Lake Erie," said Kevin Hosler of the ministry.
At least two companies are interested in offshore wind development in New York's Great Lakes waters -- BQ Energy, which developed Lackawanna's Steel Winds, and AWS Truewind.
"I don't think it's inevitable, but I think it's very likely," said Bruce Bailey, AWS Truewind's president.
There are significant obstacles and unknowns. Among them:
--Right now, the costs. The cost of windmills in water far exceeds land-based turbines, and would be too high to justify the return for private investors, even with government subsidies aimed at spurring renewable energy development.
--While some of the European offshore wind installations are in icy waters, the freshwater ice sheet on Lake Erie will present special design challenges, according to experts.
--Many environmentalists, while generally supportive of the concept of wind power, want more research into potential impacts.
--And proponents say they aren't sure how the public will react to the sight of turbines in the lake.
"That's a question I've given a lot of thought to," said BQ Energy's Tim Ryan, who says he has been stopped by people who know of his connection to Steel Winds and asked when there might be similar turbines in the lake.
Interest has bloomed to the point where BQ Energy is developing an analysis of the prognosis for Lake Erie wind power.
The study, which will be completed by year's end, will try to answer more precisely how much wind is available, how reliable it is, the best places to put turbines, how they would be connected to the electricity grids and what regulatory bodies would be involved.
Ryan said there have been some preliminary findings of the study, which is funded by the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority.
"I would say the output in Lake Erie might be 20 percent more than it would be on land," he said.
The current technology allows for turbines in up to 70 feet of water, he said.
"The New York part of the lake gets pretty deep pretty quickly," Ryan said. "So there's a relatively narrow strip along the lake, extending out between three and six to seven miles."
Installing wind turbines in water can be at least twice as expensive because of the cost of mobilizing marine crews, the specialized nature of the installation equipment and the turbines and the need to move the power onshore, experts say.
And that doesn't factor in what would be necessary to deal with the ice that often covers the eastern end of Lake Erie in winter.
"I wouldn't say it's not an issue," said Musial, of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. But "none of my colleagues think this is a showstopper for this technology."
Some of Denmark's offshore towers have concrete collars that help break up the ice and divert it around the tower, said Cynthia Handler, senior renewable engineer for Natural Resources Canada.
"They don't actually try and stop it from forming, but they try to account for icing loads in the design of the platform. It's a dynamic thing."
Another complicating factor is the number of local, state and federal agencies that would oversee the process, according to University at Buffalo law professor Robert S. Berger, who helped author a recent study that examined the possibility of Lake Erie wind power.
"But remember, there's a real advantage [here] in terms of coordinating the process," he said. "New York State has the ownership of the lake bed, so it can decide to whom it leases or whether it develops it itself."
Environmentalists like Bill Hudson, executive director of the Buffalo Audubon Society, are intrigued by the possibility of harnessing the lake's winds, but concerned that there have been few studies looking into the impacts.
"If we're passing legislation to give incentives and tax breaks to get wind energy developed, let's fund research to get these studies done simultaneously," he said.
In general, Hudson said, he is supportive of wind power because of the environmental destruction and degradation caused by burning coal and natural gas.
"I lived in West Virginia for a year," he said. "Sad as it is, having a few birds killed is nothing compared to blowing up a whole mountain top [to mine coal] and filling the river valley next to it."
Whether the turbines are on land or on water, opponents of commercial wind power, like Silver Lake's Mary Kay Barton, say it just doesn't make sense.
Large-scale wind power operations are "not scientifically sound, not environmentally sound and not economically viable," said Barton, a member of the Citizens Power Alliance, a group opposed to such installations.
Proponents acknowledge wind power isn't a "magic bullet."
"There is no sole solution to our energy problems," said Robert E. Knoer, chairman of the Wind Action Group in Buffalo.
But, he said, "We can't afford environmentally or economically to live in a carbon-based economy," and wind power will be a part of the mix to reduce that dependency on oil and natural gas.
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