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Wind Turbines in Lake Feasible, but Energy Cost Could Double Report Finds Challengesin Tapping Stronger Winds

October 11, 2008

By THOMAS CONTENT

Making electricity from wind turbines in the middle of Lake Michigan is technologically feasible but would cost up to twice as much as land-based wind farms, a state study released Friday says.

The study found there are “significant technological challenges” that would have to be overcome to build wind-power projects in deeper sections of the lake, where wind speeds are greater and more power could be generated.

But more research is needed, particularly to get better data on wind speeds in the middle of Lake Michigan and also to track bird migration patterns over the lake, said Lauren Azar, a Public Service Commission member who led the study.

Several developers have floated the idea of building wind projects in Lake Michigan in recent years, but no formal projects have been announced.

But wind-power backers say the concept is attractive because winds are steadier and stronger on the lake, so more power would be generated by turbines placed there.

“The wind speeds over the Great Lakes are both stronger and more consistent than those on land in Wisconsin,” Azar said. “Depending on how strong and consistent, we may find that wind generation on the Great Lakes is one of the answers to the state’s search for a carbon-free energy source that is homegrown to Wisconsin.”

But a finding that was surprising, Azar said, was the difficulty of getting construction equipment to the Great Lakes to build the turbines.

The technology to build deep-water turbines has been developed, though it’s not yet been done in deep water. The only water-based wind-power projects operating in Europe, such as those in the North Sea, are at shallower depths than the middle of the Great Lakes, she said.

The type of construction vessels needed to build the turbines in the lake, the report found, are vessels that are in high demand because they’re used by the oil industry for offshore oil rigs.

Getting those barges to the Great Lakes could also be a challenge, given the limits on the types of ships that can come into the lakes through the St. Lawrence Seaway, Azar said.

Another challenge for Lake Michigan-based wind power is ice and its effects on wind towers that would be built on the lake bottom. But Azar said that problem is not insurmountable, though mechanisms to deal with ice would add to the cost.

The PSC, Department of Natural Resources and other agencies participated in the study, which was recommended earlier this year by the state’s global warming task force.

That task force has recommended that Wisconsin get 25% of its power from wind turbines and other renewable energy sources by 2025. That included a stipulation that 10% of the power could come from Wisconsin-based renewable energy sources.

The PSC will accept public comments on the report until Nov. 10. The agency would consider whether to take further steps on Great Lakes wind power after a final report is prepared, Azar said.

The study also suggests consultation with lawmakers to consider legislative changes that may be needed to facilitate the development of off-shore wind power.

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